These Russians aren’t going away

“Labeled “extremists” and “foreign agents”, Fedor Maryasov and Andrey Talevlin put country and courage first.”

These Russians aren’t going away

The first time Fedor Maryasov realized that something might be very wrong in his community was as a teenager. Growing up in the uranium mining city of Zarafshan, Uzbekistan, young Fedor and his friends would swim in artificial ponds holding discharge water from the uranium mines. They fished there too, but they began to notice the fish were disfigured by genetic abnormalities, displaying red spots and growths. Still, the authorities were saying nothing. And the teenage boys, like most people in Zarafshan, knew little about how radiation affects living organisms.

By 1993, Maryasov was studying at the university in Tomsk, Siberia. That year, there was a radiation accident at the Siberian Chemical Combine, operated by the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom. The city of 300,000 escaped danger as the radiation release went in a different direction. But rumors began to spread that other populations were not so fortunate and that inhabitants of nearby villages had been evacuated. Maryasov noticed fire trucks at the entrance to his city, washing the wheels of passing vehicles. Something serious had happened. The population began to panic and to buy dosimeters.

It was then that Maryasov realized that radiation was a danger very close to home, with the capacity to affect everyone.

In 2015, Andrey Talevlin, and the environmental movement that he leads — For Nature — were named a “foreign agent” by, ironically, the Russian Ministry of Justice. Why “ironically”? Because genuine justice is what Talevlin has been fighting for throughout his professional career as a lawyer. So while the label clearly represented a danger to Talevlin’s personal safety, it was also a sort of triumph. The dubious recognition meant that Talevlin was having a major impact in his efforts to get justice for populations whose environmental interests were compromised by the import and reprocessing of irradiated nuclear fuel.

Today, Maryasov is a pioneering journalist, Talevlin a campaigning lawyer, and anyone who has seen the fate of those who oppose the regime in Russia, knows just what kind of risks both men take to commit to their conscience.

Maryasov lives in Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26), in the Krasnoyarsk Territory in Siberia, a closed nuclear city of about 85,000 people built in the 1950s for the production of weapons grade plutonium. Even today, life and freedoms remain restricted, with a special pass required to enter the city. What Maryasov discovered, however, was that despite the intense secrecy of Rosatom, Zheleznogorsk was rapidly building the infrastructure to handle nuclear waste from the nuclear industry and that Rosatom intended to extend this operation to provide commercial nuclear waste management services around the world.

Maryasov realized that in this rush to promote transnational nuclear commerce, the interests and well-being of surrounding populations had been ignored. But despite living and working as a professional journalist in a closed nuclear city, Maryasov decided not to stay silent. After witnessing local scientists looking the other way despite numerous safety violations, Maryasov led a public anti-nuclear protest in the Krasnoyarsk Territory and was able to expose the information blockade around the activities of Rosatom.

This was just the beginning of a four-year struggle during which Maryasov wrote and published more than 100 investigative articles and unrelentingly shone the media spotlight on the violations by Rosatom. In the spring of 2013, he created a petition against a plan by Rosatom to build a permanent underground nuclear waste repository in Zheleznogorsk. The petition has now garnered more than 117,000 signatures. Maryasov is also looking for financial support for his work to block the waste dump.

In August 2013, in partnership with the NGO Green World from St. Petersburg, he produced a documentary film “Digging Our Own Grave. The Russian Style of Building Radioactive Waste Repositories”.  Like Maryasov’s other work, this film revealed the many problems surrounding the questionable projects of Rosatom. It was translated into German, English and Japanese.  You can watch the film, subtitled in English, below.

When, at the end of 2014, and with the support of the international NGO network “Decommission”, Maryasov published his analytical report “The Siberian Gambit,” the whistle had finally been blown at an unmistakably deafening level. The report summarized all the the activities of the Mining and Chemical Combine (state corporation Rosatom) from 1950 to the present, the first time such information had been presented in one place.

Maryasov made sure to publicize the violations he had revealed in the mass media. Names were named, including scientists who had tried to cover up information. There were accusations of incompetency, lying and forgery. There were hundreds of attempts to suppress this information and Maryasov endured numerous illegal actions taken against him. He was put under immense pressure from the secret services and last year the Federal Security Service searched his apartment, confiscating a computer and several copies of the “The Siberian Gambit”.

Currently, Maryasov is being investigated on charges of “extremism” by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation because of his public criticism of Rosatom in the press and on social media networks. He faces a fine of three hundred thousand rubles (close to $6,000) or imprisonment for up to five years. He has suffered what he describes as “a vicious psychological campaign” against him and the unrelenting pressure over the years cost him his marriage, he says. This is the high price for revealing Rosatom’s secret plans not only in Russia, but to the rest of the world.

Mayak connects Maryasov to Talevlin who was born in the small town of Chebarkul, Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the Ural region of Russia. It was here, at the end of 1940s, that the Mayak facility received the plutonium for the first Soviet atomic bomb. Later, Mayak began reprocessing irradiated nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants and nuclear submarines. Notorious for one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents, on September 29, 1957 — an explosion known as the Kyshtym disaster —  as well as numerous other accidents and an absence of any culture of ecological sensitivity, Mayak remains one of the most radioactively contaminated places on our planet.

Talevlin began his legal career studying law at Chelyabinsk State University. There, he organized and participated in non-violent actions against the import and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at the Mayak reprocessing facility. He was arrested several times for these actions. But he remains at the university as an associate professor of environmental land law and teaches his own special course, “Legal regulation of the use of atomic energy.”

Talevlin has represented the environmental interests of the public on numerous occasions in court. In one 2002 lawsuit, the Supreme Court of Russia invalidated the Order of the Government of the Russian Federation on the import of spent nuclear fuel from the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary. Thus, the import of 370 tons of Hungarian nuclear waste into the Chelyabinsk region was prevented.

Russian environmental NGOs are also a frequent client. In 2013, Talevlin represented Green World against the JSC Ecomet-S, a radioactive waste reprocessing company. Ecomet-S was demanding monetary compensation from Green World for undermining its reputation. But thanks to Talevlin, Green World won this case in the Court of St. Petersburg.

Talevlin’s proactive participation in the defense of the environment and human rights against the use of nuclear energy has been featured in documentary films, including “Hanhikivi, about a Russian-Finnish nuclear power plant proposed for the Gulf of Bothnia on the Baltic Sea in Finland.

In the 28-minute “Hanhikivi,” produced by “Decommission” and shown in full below, with English subtitles, Talevlin explains how the uranium fuel would come from reprocessed fuel produced by Mayak, and that this would worsen the existing environmental catastrophe there. “Getting fresh nuclear fuel for power plants is actually supporting dirty business and military programs in the Russian Federation,” he says in the film. Mayak discharges 600,000 cubic meters of liquid reprocessing radioactive waste annually into the Techa river cascade, where radiation levels are 100 times background. So the users of nuclear power at Hanhikivi would, says Talevlin, “be promoting this tragedy in the Urals thousands of kilometers away from Finland.”

There have been other victories. In 2010, the German government abandoned plans to send irradiated nuclear fuel from its research reactor in East Germany to the Mayak reprocessing plant. This decision was in large part due to the impact of an international NGO campaign initiated by Talevlin and others.

All of this visionary leadership has resulted in Talevlin’s current status as a “foreign agent” and a move this year by the Chelyabinsk Regional Court on the suit of the Russian Ministry of Justice to dissolve For Nature.

Undeterred, Talevlin is currently engaged in promoting mechanisms for the legal regulation of the decommissioning of nuclear power plants. He is the author of countless reports and articles on this topic and serves as the main expert on legal issues for “Decommission”.

“Extremist?” “Foreign agent?” Or just two courageous men who won’t bow down to threats or pressure when the truth, justice, the environment and basic humanity are at stake.

Headline photo: Fedor Maryasov (left) and Andrey Talevlin discuss the current nuclear waste situation during an October 2017 international decommissioning conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Oleg Bodrov, a Russian engineer-physicist and ecologist, is the founder of Russian NGOs, Green World and the Public Council of the South Coast of the Gulf of Finland, and was the 2010 Nuclear-Free Future Award winner in the category of Education.


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