Reuters Environment NewsBy Dmitry Solovyov
ALMATY - Soviet-era nuclear tests in Kazakhstan will affect the health of the local population for centuries and international aid is needed to ease the results of the deadly experiments, Kazakh scientists said on Friday.
"It would take 300 to 350 years to get rid of genetic mutations caused by decades of nuclear tests," Aitkhazha Bigaliyev, director of the Kazakh Institute of Ecological Problems, told an international conference.
The conference, convened to discuss the aftermath of decades of nuclear tests in Kazakhstan, opened with a documentary film shot in the country's northeastern Semipalatinsk region, where about 500 nuclear explosions were carried out in 1949-89.
Dramatic sequences including a boy born without eyes and a group of mentally ill children were shown along with top-secret Soviet film files featuring monstrous mushrooms of nuclear explosions rising above the vast Kazakh steppes.
The nuclear race between the former Soviet Union and the United States ended by the beginning of the 1990s and following the overnight collapse of the USSR in late 1991, Kazakhstan withdrew all nuclear warheads from its territory.
But the Cold War arms race still claims victims in this Central Asian state of 16 million people.
"Around 1.5 million people have been exposed to radiation," said academic Saim Balmukhanov, referring to the region surrounding the 19,000 square km Semipalatinsk test site.
Balmukhanov said that in 1949-62 the Soviet Union held 36 ground and 88 atmospheric nuclear explosions. Another 372 underground explosions were held in 1962-89.
"A growing number of mutations testifies to a huge burden of human-generated factors, especially radiation," Bigaliyev said.
Bigaliyev said that over 10.5 percent of children in the neighbouring Karaganda region were born with deformities, compared to 4.0 percent in the mid-1950s.
Cases of mental diseases, cancer, dystrophy and spontaneous abortions are two to three times more frequent around Semipalatinsk than elsewhere in Kazakhstan, he said.
Scientists said the number of crippled children would rise every year because the genetic effects of nuclear tests are usually felt only from the second or third generation.
But the population of the disaster area has not benefited from any subtantial aid to help tackle the diseases.
"(Nuclear) tests were carried out in conditions of top secrecy with a ban on any information...These actions of the authorities, covering up traces of genocide, have negatively affected the destiny of the radiation-struck population," said the appeal adopted by the conference.
"The victims of radiation are left without any assistance from the government and the world community," it said.
Scientists said Kazakhstan, suffering big social problems linked to its move towards a market economy, could not on its own cope with the aftermath of nuclear tests.
"The conference expresses hope that the states of Europe, Asia and America, as well as international organisations, will help Kazakhstan to solve its ecological problems," the appeal said.
Reuters Environment News
MEXICO CITY - Mexico's ruling party on Friday accused the United States of being racist in planning to establish a dump for nuclear waste near the Texas border withMexico.
The national executive committee of Mexico's powerful and long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) said the proposed waste site at Sierra Blanca, Texas, only 30 miles (50 km) from the border, would put local residents at risk.
The environmental group Greenpeace leveled a similar charge this month, accusing the United States of "ecological racism."
Mexico has publicly opposed the setting up the dump site, which is expected to take radioactive wastes from Vermont and Maine. In early April, the U.S. Senate approved the project.
Mexico's PRI says placing the dump in a poor area where there are many Mexican-Americans could endanger their health.
"The PRI is making public its rejection of the plan, as it breaks with treaties, puts at risk health of the residents and could be seen as a racist act," the council said in a statement.
Alfredo Phillips Olmeda, international affairs spokesman for the PRI council, said the dump could have "negative and dangerous effects" on people's health. He noted that large numbers of Mexicans live in that part of the United States.
Reuters Environment NewsBy Vicki Allen
WASHINGTON - A wild stretch of a Pacific Northwest river long protected from human encroachment by nearby pockets of Cold War era radioactive contamination on Monday was declared the most endangered river in the country.
Hanford Reach, the last untouched piece of the Columbia River, is threatened by efforts to use it to irrigate land on its eastern banks that for decades was a buffer to some of the world's most toxic waste from the nuclear weapons program, the American Rivers conservation group said.
American Rivers issues an annual assessment of rivers most threatened by development, dams, pollution and other man-made maladies to waterways and the ecosystems that depend on them.
This year the group cited particular concern over factory hog and chicken farms and the massive amounts of manure they generate, calling them among "the fastest growing, most devastating" overall threats to waterways.
"In the last two decades, we have made significant progress in cleaning up waterways and putting a stop to major industrial sources of pollution. Now we are faced with a threat so pervasive it could send us back to the days when rivers, in many cases, were nothing more than cesspools," Rebecca Wodder, the group's president, said.
While huge livestock operations pose the most pervasive threat, American Rivers said the Hanford Reach faces a different danger.
Local interests along the 51-mile stretch of Washington state's Hanford Reach are pushing to use the river to irrigate some 90,000 acres that the Energy Department is poised to cut from the Hanford Reservation because it was not contaminated by the nuclear weapons program.
Introducing agriculture and irrigation would destroy the last of the Columbia River system's viable habitat for salmon, and would degrade the "spectacular landscape of towering cliffs, shifting sand dunes, and sweeping vistas across an arid shrub-steppe," the conservation group said.
Instead, American Rivers is pushing for the stretch of river to get federal protection as a "wild and scenic" river, and for the land to be protected as a wildlife refuge.
Other waterways on its list include the following:
Reuters Environment News
SYDNEY - Thousands of Australians took to the streets in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane on Sunday to protest against the planned construction of a new A$12 billion (US$8 billion) uranium mine in tropical northern Australia.
Environmentalists and Aborigines oppose the new uranium mine at Jabiluka in the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, warning it risks destroying the fragile ecosystem of the vast wetland park.
For the past two weeks some 100 protesters, along with the traditional Mirrar Aboriginal land owners, have staged a blockade of the Jabiluka site in the Northern Territory.
On Sunday, some 4,000 protesters rallied in Sydney, 1,000 took to the streets in Melbourne and some 500 people protested in Brisbane.
Sydney protesters, some in protective clothing and gas masks, waved placards and chanted "land rights now, stop Jabiluka mine" as they marched through the central city.
In Melbourne, a massive banner read "Melbourne for Mirrar, hands off Jabiluka". The protesters, ringed by a large police contingent including mounted police, stopped at a city intersection to paint slogans and handprints on the hoarding around a hotel.
Australian Conservation Foundation's national uranium campaigner, Dave Sweeney, said the mine would disrupt the ecosystem of the area, leaving 20 million tonnes of radioactive tailings.
"We see that as totally incompatible with protecting the world heritage values of Kakadu National Park," Sweeney told the Sydney protest.
Aboriginal activist Gary Foley said: "This issue is a classic example of one of the many issues on which Aboriginal interests and the interests of the majority of people in this society coincide."
Greens Senator Bob Brown warned the government that Jabiluka would be a watershed confrontation with environmentalists, bigger than the successful battle to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania in the 1983.
"Having come through the Franklin campaign where there were 6,000 who went to the blockade, 1,500 arrested, 500 jailed, I think this is going to be bigger," Brown told protesters.
Australia's conservative government in October lifted a 13 year limit on new uranium mines and approved the development of the Jabiluka operation.
The Jabiluka mine will be operated by Energy Resources of Australia Ltd, which already operates one of the Australian uranium mines in production.
The new mine is expected to generated A$12 billion in revenue in its 28-year life, making Australia one of the world's leading uranium producers.
Australia has 30 percent of the world uranium deposits, but has less than 10 percent of the world's market.
Reuters Environment NewsBy Liliana Semerdjieva
SOFIA - Bulgaria said on Thursday it had upgraded the oldest reactors at its Kozloduy nuclear plant and now hoped the West would not demand their early closure.
"Experts say the four reactors meet safety requirements," Ivan Hinovski, executive director of the National Electricity Company (NEC), told Reuters in an interview.
He was commenting on remarks made by the European Commission, the European Union's Brussels-based executive body, which said on Wednesday it was "extremely concerned" about the safety of the four 440-megawatt reactors at the Soviet-built Kozloduy plant and expected Sofia to comply with its earlier pledges to close them by 2000.
"The statement of the European Commission is based on old information over the reactors' safety," Hinovski said.
"The Kozloduy plant is very important for us and the NEC thinks that the reactors' appraisal made in 1992 should not be the same in 1998, after all these modernisation programmes have been performed."
A 1993 European Union-Bulgaria agreement on nuclear safety said that, if the country's energy supplies allowed, reactors number one and two would be closed in 1997. Reactors number three and four were expected to be shut down in 1998.
Under the agreement, western donors granted aid of 24 million Ecus (almost $26 million at current exchange rate) to Bulgaria through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to upgrade safety standards of the four oldest reactors.
Hinovsky said upgrading programmes since 1992 implemented 130 technical modifications worth more than $100 million.
He said Sofia now hoped to run the first two reactors until 2005 and the other two to 2010 - the original limit set by designers.
The water-pressurised VVER-440 reactors used by Kozloduy were safer than the Chernobyl-type reactors used by some of the nuclear plants in the former Soviet block, Hinovsky said.
An explosion in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the then Soviet Ukraine sent radioactive clouds across much of Europe.
Bulgaria, which relies for almost half of its electricity needs on the Kozloduy plant, could not afford closing its four reactors soon, Hinovsky said.
Closing them would cost the Balkan country about $2 billion to decommission and replace them. About 1,500 highly qualified workers would lose jobs.
Bulgaria, which suffered power cuts and rationing each winter until 1993, would also be forced to replace the Kozloduy output with imported electricity at higher prices.
This would lead to higher domestic electricity prices which could rise by up to five percent by 2000 and by another 10 percent by 2005, Hinovski said.
The Bulgarian economy relies on industries with high energy consumption, including steel, cement, glass and fertilisers.
Hinovski said Bulgaria had already started talks with the EBRD aimed at prolonging the operational life of its reactors. The first round was on March 31 in Birmingham, England, and negotiations were to continue on April 27-28 in Sofia.
"The final decision is expected to be taken at the end of May in London," Hinovski said. "We hope to be understood correctly so that the closure of the four reactors is delayed."
Britain holds the rotating EU presidency until June 30.
Kozloduy is expecting a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency which is due to arrive in September for an operational safety assessment review.
"We are getting ready for this very important expertise. We know the reactors are safe and we can continue running them," Hinovski said.
Last month Bulgaria signed a deal with a European consortium to modernise the two biggest and newest Soviet-made reactors at the Kozloduy plant. ($ = 0.931 European Currency Unit ECUs).
Reuters Environment NewsBy Lawrence Chung
TAIPEI - Taiwan's state power utility on Thursday vowed to carry out its contract to ship nuclear waste to North Korea despite international and domestic pressure.
"We will not abandon our contract to ship nuclear waste to North Korea, and will carry it through," a spokesman for the Taiwan Power Company, or Taipower, told Reuters by telephone.
The official said his company was waiting for an export permit from Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council, which regulates nuclear power and fuel operations as well as waste disposal.
Taiwan signed the deal with North Korea in January 1997 to ship 60,000 barrels of low-radiation nuclear waste to Pyongyang with an option of shipments of up to 200,000 barrels.
But heavy pressure from home and abroad, particularly from North Korea's long-time rival South Korea, has stalled the deal.
Taiwan's local media have reported that the pressure has forced the Atomic Energy Council to delay approval of the waste export.
The mass-circulation United Daily News reported on Thursday that Pyongyang would sue Taipower for breaching the contract and demand compensation if Taipower fails to honour the contract.
Financial details of the contract have not been disclosed, but various reports have estimated the deal at US$230 million for North Korea, which is starved for cash and has suffered from widespread famine due to floods and agricultural mismanagement.
The Taipower official said North Korea had expressed concern over the stalling of the shipment, but he denied his company has received legal threats.
"We have told them (North Korea) we are awaiting the export permit, and we don't expect them to file any lawsuit against us," the official said.
He said the company is coordinating with the council to expedite the permit issue.
Atomic Energy Council officials on Thursday said the council still needs to inspect the waste storage site in Pingshan in North Korea before it can issue the permit.
"How can we issue the permit if we still cannot send anyone to inspect the dump site?" Chiou Syh-tsong, director of the Council's Radwaste Administration, said.
Chiou said according to the contract, North Korea was supposed to complete the Pingshan dump by September.
"Up till now, we still have not received notification that the site is completed," Chiou said.
Taipower and North Korea signed their contract more than a year ago.
South Korea has been a major opponent of Taipower's plan, saying the shipment would risk nuclear pollution and related health hazards on both sides of the divided Korean peninsula.
The deal also has been actively opposed by anti-nuclear activists in Taiwan and Japan, who say North Korea cannot be trusted with the waste and is accepting it only out of financial desperation.
Taipower has three nuclear power plants in operation and has a fourth under construction.
Its main waste dump on Lanyu island southeast of Taiwan, whose 98,112-barrel capacity is nearly full, must be cleared and closed by 2002 under an agreement made with local residents.
Reuters Environment NewsBy Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO - Japan's oldest commercial nuclear reactor ended 31 years of operation on Tuesday, leaving thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste, but also a valuable legacy of technical experience in atomic power generation.
Japan Atomic Power Co officials said they shut down the 166,000-kilowatt unit at a plant overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Tokai, 110 km (66 miles) northeast of Tokyo, on Tuesday afternoon.
"The last control rod slid into the reactor pressure vessel at around 3.30 p.m., and that was that," a company spokesman said.
The Tokai reactor will now become the first Japanese nuclear power plant to begin the long, complicated and costly process of decommissioning and demolition.
The reactor was the only one in Japan to use graphite as its moderator and carbon dioxide gas as its coolant, a design Japan Atomic officials said made it cost twice as much to operate and maintain as other commercial reactors and which prompted its closure.
The other 51 commercial nuclear reactors in Japan use water as a moderator and coolant. Nuclear reactors supply about one-third of the country's electric power.
Japan Atomic plans to starts the 25 billion yen ($189 million) demolition of the Tokai reactor by first removing 16,000 fuel rods from its system - a process expected to take about three years.
The plant will then be left to sit for up to 10 years in order to reduce radioactivity before it is dismantled. Demolition is expected to produce 23,000 tonnes of low-level radioactive waste.
Spent nuclear fuel removed from the plant will be sent to Britain to be reprocessed into uranium and plutonium fuel as well as radioactive waste. Both fuel and waste will eventually be shipped back to Japan.
The vitrified radioactive waste will be cooled in canisters for 30 to 50 years at a storage facility in Aomori Prefecture on the northern tip of Japan's main island before being permanently buried several hundred metres (yards) below ground.
The location of the permanent storage site has yet to be fixed and its selection is expected to be a difficult task as a series of accidents and ensuing cover-ups in the last few years have seriously undermined public trust in the nuclear industry.
Aomori Governor Morio Kimura this month barred a ship carrying high-level radioactive waste destined for the prefecture's storage site from a nearby port until he was given central government assurances about the safety of the cargo.
Aomori residents and local authorities are worried the prefecture might become a permanent home for the nuclear waste.