Public pressure stops French nuclear waste export to Russia

Feature story - 29 May, 2010
AREVA, the French nuclear energy company, admitted Friday that their contract to ship nuclear waste to Russia has been halted four years early, ending this July. Transports we have tirelessly highlighted, taken action against and lobbied to have ended. But , where to now with all their dangerous waste? AREVA says it plans to let the, ahem, "stocks" build up in their facilities at home.

Greenpeace activists along side the transport ship carrying AREVA's nuclear waste, bound for Russia

For Greenpeace campaigners, activists, and supporters, it's a well-earned occasion to celebrate and reflect on over 25 years of efforts to expose and oppose these scandalous nuclear waste shipments to Russia.

The contract between AREVA and the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom was due to expire in 2014. However, the Russians have decided to end the collaboration, which began in 1972, effective 11 July 2010.

Last month our ship the Esperanza pursued the Russian transport ship Kapitan Kuropte, on its way to Russia carrying nuclear waste from France. Activists in rubber boats got along side the ship displaying banners reading "Russia is not a nuclear dump", before being sprayed with water canons.

We were in St. Petersburg too, when the Kapitan Kuropte arrived with its hazardous cargo. Greenpeace activists unfurled a banner reading "Stop Nukes", drawing more public attention to AREVA's nuclear waste as it arrived in the historic Russian port, on the Baltic Sea.

Naturally AREVA and Rosatom won't mention the fever pitch of international controversy that surrounded their nuclear waste shipments. On Friday their spokespeople told journalists basically the same story: we planned to stop this year anyway, nothing to see, please move along. But this letter (PDF document) from Russia's energy minister confirms that the uranium shipment contract had four more years to run, until 2014.

Nuclear waste shipments exposed by Greenpeace

In 1984, following the sinking of the freighter Mont Louis off Zeebrugge (Belgium), Greenpeace discovered that the ship was carrying containers of uranium hexafluoride. We uncovered a massive scandal: without public scrutiny or knowledge, France had been shipping nuclear waste to Russia since 1972. It's taken more than a generation of campaigning and investigation to raise enough awareness and pressure to finally stop the shipments.

A documentary aired on the pan-European TV station ARTE in October 2009, "Waste: The Nuclear Nightmare", catapulted the issue of AREVA's nuclear waste onto centre stage in France. AREVA's story was so unconvincing that it prompted the French Minister of Environment and Energy to call upon the High Committee for Transparency and Information on Nuclear Safety to begin a formal investigation. Originally scheduled for January 2010, the results of this investigation will now be made public by the end of June.

AREVA's lies

Ever since they were first exposed by Greenpeace, AREVA's only defense has been to argue that the nuclear waste sent to Russia was in fact be returned to France as fuel for French nuclear power stations. Uranium is shipped to Russia, enriched, and returned – that's their official line. But it's not true.

A Rosatom representative speaking formally to the High Committee investigation in France let slip in November 2009, that adioactive materials from France are not intended to be re-enriched. It's waste, and around 90 percent of it never comes back.

A senior official of France's Ministry of Environment and Energy has provided figures (PDF document, French) on the final material flows between France and Russia between 2006 and late 2009: 32,200 tons of waste was exported to Russia, while only 3,090 tons of materials came back.

Greenpeace welcomes decision to stop the scandalous and immoral transporting

Exporting radioactive waste to Russia is contrary to Russian environmental law, which bans the importation of nuclear waste. It is also contrary to the European Directive of 2006 (PDF document) on the supervision and control of shipments of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

The European law states that the sender of nuclear waste must ensure that the waste will be stored and processed under safe conditions in the country of destination. Today, neither AREVA nor EDF, or even the French authorities, are able to monitor security conditions in Russia, as confirmed by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN).

Greenpeace activists locked on, focused on their goal

To end the nuclear age

Nuclear waste is produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and enrichment, to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Much of this nuclear waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, leaving a deadly legacy to future generations. And, so the struggle for a green and peaceful future continues.

Luckily for us, this latest story confirms that persistence and nonviolently bearing witness pays off in the end.