HOT PROPERTY, COLD CASH: The plan to turn Russia into the world's nuclear waste dump
by Jeffrey St. Clair
In These Times
October 17, 1999, p. 10
The world's nuclear plants are rapidly running out of places
to store their nuclear waste. Public opposition so far has blocked
plans to build centralized nuclear waste dumps in Sweden, Switzerland
and Australia. The scheme to bury the spent fuel from U.S. nuclear
plants deep inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada has run into one political
and environmental pitfall after another. Security risks and liability
concerns have made keeping the spent fuel on site an economic
nightmare for utilities. But where there's danger, there's financial
Economically starved Russia is hungry for the chance to cash
in on the radioactive loot. In May, Yevgeny Adamov, the head of
MinAtom, Russia's ministry of atomic energy, told the Moscow
Times: "Russia must fight for its share of the nuclear
waste market." Adamov wants the Russian Duma to overturn
its ban on the import of commercial nuclear waste for storage
and Russian plants to reprocess the waste and then export it as
nuclear fuel or, perhaps, fissile material. The crafty Adamov
estimates that the entire operation could produce $ 150 billion
in revenue, making MinAtom the most powerful operation in Russia.
At this opportune time, along comes a proposal by the altruistic
sounding Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT) that would supply Russia
with exactly what Adamov and his cronies crave: tons of nuclear
waste and billions of dollars. The NPT bills its plan as a way
to help Russia secure "fissile" plutonium and uranium
and to provide money for its comatose economy. The Washington-based
NPT is an off-shoot of the politically connected U.S. Fuels &
Security (USF&S), a group which a few years ago promoted a
scheme to dump radioactive waste on Wake Island, an atoll in the
Russia's desperate financial straits also have made the Russian
government, never an environmental guardian, amenable to proposals
that would have seemed outlandish only a few years ago. The NPT/MinAtom
proposal is the latest example of how far Russia has fallen. This
deal would set dangerous precedents by opening up an international
market in radioactive waste and by placing nuclear bomb-making
materials into the hands of private groups with little or no government
oversight. Moreover, anti-nuclear groups charge, a deal to make
Russia the dumping ground for the world's nuclear waste could
end up saving the nuclear power industry, which is teetering because
of financial and public relations burdens stemming from the accumulation
of spent fuel that is stacking up at the rate of 500 pounds of
plutonium per reactor each year.
In These Times has obtained a proposal drafted by the
NPT that spells out an ambitious scenario for making Russia the
dumping ground for the world's commercial nuclear waste, including
shipments of high-grade plutonium that could be used to make atom
According to the documents, the NPT, which would be the managing
partner in the scheme, would arrange for at least 10,000 metric
tons of radioactive waste to be shipped to sites in Russia, most
likely the Mayak facility in the southern Urals and Krasnoyarksk-26
in Siberia. The spent nuclear fuel would come from commercial
reactors in Switzerland, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Under
the plan, the NPT, a private entity, would retain title to the
The trust plans to charge nuclear utilities as much as $ 2,000
per kilogram to dispose of the waste in Russia. This would generate
as much as $ 12 billion in revenue and $ 10 billion in profits
for MinAtom and the contractors. How much NPT personnel would
make is unclear. The documents suggest that the trust would retain
at least 10 percent of the revenue for administrative overhead.
Under the plan, the waste would be shipped from Europe and
Asia on large ships mounted with an arsenal of weapons designed
to ward off nuclear pirates. A preview of these trans-oceanic
nuclear armadas came in August when two merchant ships, armed
with 30-millimeter cannons, carried enough weapons-grade plutonium
to make 75 A-bombs across the Pacific from France to Japan, where
it will be burned as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in Japan's nuclear
The big question is what happens to the waste after it arrives
in Russia. According to the NPT, the fuel would be either stored
in casks or buried in deep geological formations in the Russian
outback. Under either scenario, the NPT/MinAtom contract is for
only 40 years, the equivalent of a nanosecond for waste that remains
radioactive for nearly a million years. During that time, the
trust claims that the fuel would not be reprocessed. But the Russian
government has other ideas.
Officials with MinAtom, which has long been known as a lucrative
feeding ground for corrupt officials and the resurgent Russian
Mob, believe they can use the new stream of money to rebuild crumbling
nuclear facilities and then reprocess the waste into weapons-grade
uranium. Under terms of a 1993 agreement forged between Vice President
Al Gore and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin,
the Russians believe they could then turn around and sell the
uranium to the United States. Or the hot materials could be sold
on the nuclear market to willing buyers, such as Pakistan, India,
Israel, Iran, China or North Korea.
Complicating matters further, one of the stranger aspects of
the proposal would have the NPT taking control of 50 tons of fissile
plutonium from the Russian government and storing it at Mayak.
The trust argues that this would secure the weapons-grade material.
But questions arise as to how a U.S.-based nonprofit would guard
the plutonium at a site inside the heart of Russia: Will they
have a security force? Will they be permitted to fire on Russian
troops if they attempt to seize the materials? "What you
have is a private nonprofit group taking title to bomb-making
materials," says Michael Mariotte, director of the Washington-based
Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "This sets a dangerous
precedent and undermines years of non-proliferation agreements."
Ironically, the NPT proposal uses some of these very prospects
as a pretext to advance its plan. "In Russia, economic conditions
make it difficult for many to find a job with decent and reliable
compensation," reads the proposal. "Many nuclear defense
workers in Russia are now suffering uncertainty and deprivation.
To reduce the prospect that some of those workers may face opportunities
internationally to market their skills that could be adverse to
the security interests of Russia and the United States, programs
are needed which enhance opportunities for them to continue to
benefit their homeland."
The biggest initial hurdle for the NPT is Russian environmental
statutes that currently outlaw the import of spent fuel for storage
in Russia. MinAtom has been attempting to overturn these bother-some
laws for the past few years. The NPT proposal will make MinAtom's
lobbying job a lot easier. Recognizing the central fact that money
is the real grease to the legislative gears of the Russian Parliament,
the trust has pledged to spend at least $ 3.5 billion on the pet
projects of key leaders of the Durna -- including $ 1.8 billion
for a spent-fuel geological repository, a scheme to bury the waste
in deep underground caves. Critics note that this is barely a
down payment on the price tag of such a facility. The trust also
has promised to dole out nearly $ 2 billion to "safeguard"
weapons-grade plutonium and hundreds of millions for charitable
and environmental programs, the pensions and salaries owed to
Russian nuclear and defense workers, and, most peculiarly, Russian
Russian environmentalists, though, say that any compacts with
MinAtom are fraught with peril. "If this goes through, the
deal will make MinAtom, an agency that is already barely answerable
to the government, the most powerful entity in Russia," says
Vladimir Slivyak, an organizer with the Social Ecological Union,
the largest environmental group in Russia. "Certainly, MinAtom
will be one of the few agencies with any money and they sure won't
spend it on social programs."
On its face, the NPT proposal might sound far-fetched, but
the organization is taken seriously in Washington. According to
sources at the Department of Energy, over the past couple of years
USF&S officials now associated with the trust have also talked
about the possibility that nuclear waste from U.S. plants could
end up being ferried to Russia on large ships, especially if the
troubled plan to store U.S. nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain falls
MinAtom actively courted this very scenario in a December 1998
letter, in which Adamov shrewdly reminds U.S. Energy Secretary
Bill Richardson of the political, environmental and legal problems
surrounding the Yucca Mountain site. He goes on to suggest: "It
would be advisable to examine the question of possible transfer,
on a commercial basis, of spent fuel from U.S. power plants to
Russia for its long-term storage and subsequent reprocessing at
So far, the United States has rebuffed Adamov's offer. But
a recent court victory by the nuclear power industry has complicated
the situation enormously. A federal court ruled earlier this year
that the U.S. government had made a contractual agreement with
the nuclear utilities to assume all of the liabilities and most
of the costs for the disposal of the nation's commercial nuclear
waste. This decision may make the U.S. government much more anxious
to dispose of the waste overseas.
Most senior officials in the Department of Energy oppose this
scenario. The DOE has a huge financial stake in Yucca Mountain.
Moreover, the agency is also pursuing the possibility of reprocessing
spent fuel in a MOX fuel program to make weapons-grade plutonium.
But sources at the DOE say that the State Department is fervently
pushing the plan for a Russian dump. A key player here is Strobe
Talbott, assistant secretary of state and roving Russian envoy,
who reportedly has argued that the NPT proposal may be a way to
buttress the ailing Russian economy and keep the defense and nuclear
forces from disintegrating.
The fact that the NPT plan is supported by top officials in
the Clinton administration is a sign of how tightly wired this
group is to the Washington establishment. The trust is overseen
by some of America's top nuclear warriors. Its board includes
Adm. Daniel J. Murphy, Adm. Bruce DeMars, William Webster, and
Dr. William Von Raab. Murphy, the founder of USF&S, is former
commander of the Sixth Fleet, deputy director of the CIA, chief
of staff for George Bush when he was vice president, and vice
chairman of Hill and Knowlton, the global PR firm. DeMars is former
director of the Navy's nuclear propulsion program, chief of its
nuclear submarine fleet, head of its reactor program during the
Clinton era and, after his retirement, a high-paid consultant
to defense firms. Webster is former director of both the CIA and
the FBI and now an adviser on nuclear issues to the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, a D.C. think tank that is
home to many former intelligence operatives. Von Raab served as
U.S. Customs commissioner during the Reagan era (when tons of
cocaine were being moved under the noses of customs agents by
the contras) and as a top official of the old Federal Energy
Administration. USF&S's corporate counsel is James Baker,
former chief of staff and secretary of state under President Bush.
Over the past four years, the firm also has employed a retinue
of lobbyists close to Congress and the White House. Most notable
are Joseph R. Egan, who specializes in nuclear issues, William
Oldaker, former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission,
and Mark Grobmyer, one of Clinton's golfing buddies from Arkansas.
In 1996, Grobmyer helped arrange a meeting between USF&S and
Katie McGinty, then head of the President's Council on Environmental
Policy, to discuss a hare-brained plan to move spent nuclear fuel
from Russia to atolls in the South Pacific. Similar meetings took
place at the National Security Council, CIA and DOE.
One of the more bizarre figures involved in this outfit is
Alex Copson, who variously has claimed to have been the drummer
and the bassist for the dreadful heavy metal band Iron Butterfly.
Copson has served as the frontman for USF&S, lining up venture
capitalists as backers and promoting the firm's various schemes
in the press. (A thorough account of Copson's earlier exploits
can be found in Ken Silverstein's excellent book, Washington
on $ 10 Million a Day.) For an impresario, Copson has a tendency
to stick his foot in his mouth. When an early scheme to dump 200,000
tons of nuclear waste on the Marshall Islands collapsed due to
fierce opposition from the islanders, Copson showed his true colors.
"They're all scam artists, banging the tin cup in front of
the white man," Copson told Outside magazine in 1995.
The NPT bills itself as a non-profit enterprise, but the trust's
partners and its principals could stand to make a killing in the
international nuclear waste trade. The administrative take alone
could top $ 1.2 billion. Plus, multimillion-dollar contracts would
flow to allied firms such as Alaska Interstate Construction, which
would design and build the storage facilities in Russia, and shipbuilder
Halter Marine, a Gulfport, Miss., firm with close ties to Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott.
This is how the revolving door in Washington works these days.
While they were government officials, the key players in the NPT
ruthlessly pressed for ever-escalating expenditures for the nuclear
arms and power industry. Now in the private sector, they are using
their connections to cash in by inducing Russia to accept delivery
of the world's most toxic materials.
The prospect of an international trade in nuclear waste troubles
many environmentalists. "This plan represents the ultimate
in 'not-in-my-backyard' thinking," says Mariotte of the Nuclear
Information and Resource Service. "The only real beneficiaries
are nuclear utilities and the NPT personnel."
The NPT anticipated opposition from environmentalists in Russia
and the United States. To deflect such criticism, they recruited
one of the world's most prominent green groups, the Natural Resources
Defense Council, as an ally. Thomas Cochran, director of the NRDC's
nuclear program, has protrayed his and the NRDC's roles as limited.
"I only provide public policy advice to NPT," Cochran
told the industry newsletter NuclearFuels.
But according to the documents obtained by In These Times,
the NRDC stands to play a much bigger role. Cochran is listed
as a trustee of the MinAtom Development Trust (MDT), an entity
described as "holding, disbursing, and auditing funds provided
by the NPT for the purpose of modernizing and improving the security
of MinAtom nuclear facilities and assisting MinAtom in non-proliferation
goals." The MDT is hardly a small-time operation. According
to the proposal, more than $ 3 billion could flow through its
The NRDC may stand to reap substantial financial benefits from
the project. According to the proposal, the NPT would set up a
$ 200 million "Russian Environmental Reclamation Fund"
to be used "for the cleanup of radiologically contaminated
sites and other worthy environmental protection initiatives in
Russia." The fund would be managed by the NRDC -- whose cut
could total about 10 percent of the entire fund, or $ 20 million.
In 1998, the NRDC's annual income was only $ 27 million.
Cochran responds that the agreement is an innovative approach
that would give the ailing Russian economy, including its budget-strapped
environmental programs, an infusion of cash as well as keep weapons-grade
plutonium off the nuclear black market.
However, these marginal potential gains are far out-weighed
by the environmental and security risks posed by creating an international
market for materials that remain lethal for millennia and can
be converted relatively easily into the ingredients that power
bombs capable of destroying cities. The responsibility for the
safe disposal of commercial nuclear waste should reside with the
nuclear utilities and not economically desperate governments that
are driven to take the spent fuel over the objections of their
Perhaps this is why the NRDC's partnership with MinAtom, the
NPT and the former CIA men has not served to muzzle criticism
of the plan by environmentalists in Russia, where it is fiercely
opposed by all the leading green groups. "The plan by the
NPT and the NRDC has nothing to do with environmental principles,"
says Slivyak of the Social Ecological Union. "Instead, it
unethically promotes the interests of the Western nuclear industry,
whose main interest is to get rid of its own nuclear waste."