Police Break Up Ecological Demonstration

Friday, October 12, 2007

By Galina Stolyarova
Staff Writer

Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
An ecological demonstrator is carried away by a policeman as a protest on St. Isaac’s Square, in front of the Legislative Assembly building, was broken up on Thursday.

The police on Thursday disrupted an environmental picket outside the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, detaining more than 10 activists from local and international ecological groups campaigning against the import of spent nuclear fuel and depleted uranium hexafluoride. The picket was held in the wake of a hefty cargo of depleted uranium arriving in the city.
At 1 p.m., activists from the environmental groups Bellona, Ecodefence and Greenpeace and the environmental faction of democratic party Yabloko lined up outside the city parliament holding a long yellow banner which called for an end to the import of radioactive materials.
Within minutes, the protesters were surrounded by a police detachment. The officers declared the gathering illegal and demanded that the protesters pack up the banner and leave.
“You are holding an illegal picket, and I ask you to stop it. If you continue, you will be detained and taken to the nearest police station,” a police officer told the protesters. “You failed to give three-day’s notice for your picket.”
According to the Russian law, to hold a street picket the organizers must give the local authorities three days’ notice. The officer had a printout with him of a document which said that City Hall received the picket request on 8 October.
The protesters disagreed with the officials’ calculation, asking the officer to count the three days with them. “You do not have to follow orders that contradict the law,” argued Andrei Ozharovsky, a leading expert with Moscow-based environmental organization Ecodefence. “You can count the three days using your own fingers: October 8, 9 and 10; today is October 11.”
After the activists refused to withdraw, the police took the banner by force and detained most of the activists.
Also on Thursday, the Doggersbank cargo ship carrying about 80 containers with a total of 1,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride from the Gronau uranium enrichment facility, which belongs to Urenco Deutschland, arrived at the St. Petersburg city port.
The radioactive load on board the Doggersbank is due to be sent by rail to the town of Novouralsk in Siberia for reprocessing and storage.
Olga Tsepilova, deputy head of the environmental faction of liberal party Yabloko, was bewildered by the police intervention. “The picket was peaceful and also quite small — about several dozen people were present — so from a security point of view it was absolutely harmless,” she said.
“What would harm the authorities indeed was what those people had to say to local citizens: that every month many tons of spent nuclear fuel pass through St. Petersburg putting many thousands of people at risk of radioactive contamination.”
In 1999, Russian environmentalists failed in their attempts to have a ban put on the import of spent nuclear fuel from abroad.
In December 2000, the State Duma voted overwhelmingly to adopt the practice of importing irradiated fuel from other countries.
Supporters of the project then said that the money the business would raise would be used to develop Russia’s nuclear industry, as well as improve its safety record and help clean up contaminated areas.
Ecodefence and other pressure groups argue the transportation is not safe, as the containers are not completely leak-proof and the freight travels across the country unguarded, with the drivers of the trains that carry the dangerous cargos not being informed about the radioactive content of the containers.
They are not given anytraining to deal with any emergencies or accidents that may arise.
“The cargo passes through residential districts of the city and if a leak occurs thousands of people within a distance of half a kilometer to several kilometers would suffer,” said Dmitry Artamonov, head of the local branch of Greenpeace.
“There have already been cases of leaks and on one occasion in 2006 an entire container stocked with radioactive materials sank in the Baltic Sea and was never located,” Tsepilova said.
Environmental groups complain that they are not officially informed about the nuclear traffic and when they find out about a particular load and check the containers for radiation levels they often find the containers unattended.
The Russian activists found out about the Gronau shipments from their counterparts in Germany. Matthias Eickhoff, spokesman of the Widerstand gegen Atomanlagen (WIGA) group in Munster, Germany, also alerted several Russian environmental journalists about new shipments.
At present, cargo containing radioactive material passes through St. Petersburg at least 10 times a month, said Alexander Shishkin, director of Isotope, a state-owned enterprise responsible for such shipments. Arriving by sea, the nuclear loads are then sent to treatment facilities in Siberia.
For security reasons, any information about the transfer is difficult to obtain from officials, with their main concern being that the release of such information would spark mass panic.
“Naturally, the state would rather not tell the people; in Germany, rail transportation of radioactive material was banned for three years very recently because the drivers refused to be involved,” Eickhoff said.
“The official reason was that close proximity to these containers would put them at an increased risk of impotence. And labor unions nationwide supported the appeal,” he said.
Eickhoff said it costs German companies three times less to send irradiated left-overs to Russia than to reprocess them at home and blamed his home country for being immoral.
“This is unethical; every country that decides to use nuclear technologies has to be responsible for any costs and consequences involved,” the expert said. “Burdening other countries with it and choosing one state as the world’s nuclear waste storage site, however difficult the circumstances of the state may be, is despicable.”
In June 1999, the Nuclear Power Ministry and a U.S.-based Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT) signed a letter of intent stating Russia would accept at least 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Switzerland, South Korea and Taiwan for reprocessing and storage for at least 40 years.
For its services, Russia would charge between $1,000 and $2,000 per kilogram of spent fuel — much cheaper than other countries which store and reprocess foreign nuclear fuel.
The activists accused the authorities of deliberately stifling their critics by banning street protests on technicalities.
Earlier in October, Yabloko wanted to organize a meeting to mark the anniversary of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya on Oct. 7 but failed to receive permission from the authorities.
“At first the city officials told us that holding such an event on President Putin’s birthday — the Russian president’s birthday is Oct. 7 — would be inappropriate, “ Tsepilova recalls,
“But then they probably realized how silly and absurd that sounds and officially turned us down on the grounds that a team of the city’s landscape designers will be working in the garden we had requested for the meeting on that day. In general, City Hall always finds a superficial reason to turn us down, whether it be busy traffic, gardening works, road repairs or someone else getting the permission first.”

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