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Russia: no nuclear transparency, and still using Soviet style tactics against anti nuclear activists

CRACKDOWN IN RUSSIA: CRITICS ACCUSE NUCLEAR AUTHORITIES OF SOVIET-STYLE COVER-UPS AND HEAVY-HANDED TACTICS,  Newsweek, BY MARC BENNETTS When Russia’s FSB security service raided Fyodor Maryasov’s apartment in Siberia last year, the authorities seized his computer and a scathing report he had compiled about Rosatom, the Kremlin-owned nuclear corporation. Among other things, the authorities accused him of inciting hatred against nuclear industry employees, an unusual charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years behind bars. “They accused me of revealing state secrets in my report,” the 49-year-old environmental activist says. “But every single thing in it was taken from open sources.”

The raid came as activists are increasingly criticizing Rosatom over a range of issues, including the way it handles nuclear waste. This fall, for instance, critics alleged that one of its facilities was the source of a mysterious cloud of radioactive pollution that drifted across Europe.

Russian authorities have responded to these critics with tough tactics—including raids and smear campaigns—and in recent years, they’ve employed similar measures against other environmental groups.  Rosatom says it was in no way trying to stifle dissent. “We strongly believe that every voice should be heard,” a spokesman for the nuclear agency tells Newsweek, “and we welcome open dialogue with civil society, including with those who are opposed to nuclear power.”

Maryasov says the crackdown is a continuation of the routine cover-ups of nuclear accidents and atomic pollution during the Soviet era and beyond—from the 1957 Kyshtym disaster to the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. “Trust in Rosatom and the authorities,” he says, “is at an absolute minimum.”

The activist’s recent troubles began after he spoke out against Rosatom’s plans for a permanent underground nuclear waste repository in his hometown of Zheleznogorsk, in eastern Siberia. If the project goes ahead, Russian authorities would likely begin storing hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste at the site. Zheleznogorsk was built in 1950, under the supervision of Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria, for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Until 1992, plant employees regularly disposed of nuclear waste in the nearby Yenisey River, causing health problems for tens of thousands of people in the area. Russian authorities stopped the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons at the Zheleznogorsk plant in 2010.

But critics say the shadow of nuclear catastrophe still hangs over the region. In the event of a massive natural disaster or terrorist attack, the nuclear waste repository plan poses what Maryasov says is a threat to “every living thing” in the region. Zheleznogorsk is a mere 40 miles downstream from Krasnoyarsk, the regional capital, with a population of just over 1 million. And people in the area are concerned. More than 85,000 so far have signed a petition Maryasov drafted calling for Rosatom to scrap its plans for the repository.

The nuclear agency says it is building an underground lab at the Zheleznogorsk site to study the feasibility of its plans. It says those plans are open to public debate, and it points to similar storage sites currently operated in Finland, Sweden and the United States.

Critics, however, say it’s hard to access reliable information about Rosatom’s plans because many of its nuclear facilities are in so-called closed cities, like Zheleznogorsk. There are around 40 of these towns across Russia, the majority of which are sealed off from the outside world by barbed wire, fences and armed guards. Access is forbidden to foreigners, and even Russians who don’t live there have to receive special permission from the authorities to visit.

Those restrictions mean it’s easier for the authorities to ramp up the pressure against critics. Maryasov says he was the victim of a “vicious psychological campaign,” and he accuses the authorities of distributing fake news claiming he had advocated violence against atomic energy workers. The unrelenting pressure, he says, led to the breakup of his marriage of almost two decades.

“The constitution stipulates freedom of information and forbids censorship, as well as guaranteeing the right to everyone to information about the state of the environment,” Greenpeace said in a statement. “In order to realize those rights, someone has to seek out and make public this information, which is what Maryasov was engaged in doing.”

In recent months, critics have hammered Russia’s nuclear industry over allegations that Mayak, a notorious nuclear plant in Ozyorsk, a closed city in central Russia, was the source of radioactive pollution observed over Western Europe in late September. Mayak, which was built in 1948, produces components for nuclear weapons and stores and converts spent nuclear fuel. France’s Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety said the cloud that passed over Austria, France and other European countries was harmless, but it warned that the estimated level of radiation at the site of the suspected nuclear accident posed a serious threat to human health.

In November, Russian state meteorologists reported that high atmospheric concentrations of the radioactive isotope Ruthenium-106 had been detected around Mayak, triggering accusations that the secretive facility in Ozyorsk was the source of the pollution. However, Rosatom denied an accident had taken place there, said the levels detected by meteorologists were far below the admissible norm and insisted it had not carried out any operations that could have led to the isotope’s release into the atmosphere “for many years.”

Yet on December 13, Yuri Morkov, a senior executive at Mayak, admitted that Ruthenium-106 is routinely released as part of the plant’s processing of spent nuclear fuel. He insisted, however, that levels are so insignificant that there is no cause for concern.

Russian environmentalists are skeptical of his denials, in part because of Mayak’s history. Between 1949 and 1951, the factory dumped radioactive waste from the nuclear facility into the local river, polluting water supplies for tens of thousands of locals. In 1957, a storage tank containing highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste exploded at Mayak, exposing at least 272,000 people to dangerous levels of radiation. The accident was the third most serious nuclear disaster of all time, after far more famous accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Eco-activists say the Soviets sent thousands of people, including some 2,000 pregnant women and hundreds of children, to clean up the disaster site with nothing more than rags and mops.

The atomic catastrophe was shrouded in secrecy: It wasn’t until 1989 that the USSR admitted it had taken place. Cancer rates in the worst affected areas around Mayak are between 2.5 and 3.5 times the national average, according to Greenpeace. In 2007, Russia’s constitutional court ruled that the unborn children exposed to radiation during the clean-up were not entitled to government benefits as adults, as they were not officially employed by the state.

This fall’s reports of the alleged nuclear leak at Mayak rekindled memories of the 1957 disaster. But Rosatom denies there have been any major incidents at its plants in recent years…….

There is no evidence suggesting Rosatom is directly responsible for the harassment of regional activists. A source close to the Russian nuclear industry tells Newsweekthat the “appalling and totally unacceptable” pressure is more likely coming from regional FSB officials trying to please their superiors in Moscow in the lead-up to Russia’s presidential election, a time when there’s increasingly less tolerance for dissent. Another possibility: lower-level officials who stand to benefit financially from Rosatom’s activities. “Russia is Russia,” the source says, asking for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “They play their own game as always.”

As for Maryasov, the Siberian activist faces an uncertain future as he continues his campaign against the nuclear waste repository. Finding a job has been hard because of his legal troubles, but he has no intention of moving.

“Too many people have put their trust in me,” he says, “I can’t let them down.” http://www.newsweek.com/crackdown-russia-critics-accuse-nuclear-authorities-soviet-style-cover-ups-and-755389

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December 22, 2017 - Posted by | civil liberties, environment, Russia, secrets,lies and civil liberties

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