A shipment of 600 tonnes of depleted uranium has left a nuclear fuel plant in Germany bound for Russia, a Russian environmentalist group says.
Twelve rail cars left the Urenco plant in the town of Gronau, close to the Dutch border, on Monday 22 June, according to the Ecodefense group.
The waste will reportedly be moved by sea and rail to a plant in the Urals.
Urenco told the BBC its uranium would be further enriched in Russia and the process met environmental standards.
But environmental activists have long been concerned that Russia may become a “dumping ground” for radioactive waste from power plants.
Greenpeace protested last year after German media reports that Urenco had resumed shipping depleted uranium from Germany to Russia after a gap of 10 years. Russia had halted the practice in 2009 under pressure from environmentalists.
On Monday activists in Germany posted video on social media of what appeared to be the train en route from Gronau, as well as photos of anti-nuclear protesters.
Why is the waste being sent to Russia?
According to the report (in Russian) by Ecodefense, some of the waste will be shipped by sea to Russia via the port of Amsterdam.
It will, the group says, eventually arrive at the Ural Electrochemical Combine in Novouralsk, 3,400km (2,500 miles) away in Russia’s Ural Mountains.
The group believes that nearly 3,000 tonnes of depleted uranium have already been shipped from Germany to Russia this year.
The Urenco spokesperson contacted by the BBC said they could not give details of shipments for “safety and security reasons”.
But Urenco did confirm that it had a contract with a firm called Tradewill, a subsidiary of Tenex which is the overseas trade company of Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation.
Under the contract, it said, depleted uranium “tails” are sent to Russia for further processing. The enriched uranium product then returns to Urenco while the “depleted fraction” remains with Tenex.
“This is common and legal practice,” Urenco says. “We also retain depleted uranium at Urenco in Europe.”
Urenco, which is a partnership between German, British and Dutch companies, said its representatives had inspected the facilities involved in the process and had found that they complied with “all internationally recognised logistics standards, which includes handling, storage, safeguarding and processing of nuclear material, as well as appropriate environmental standards”.
Why are environmentalists so concerned?
One of the big questions is how much of the waste is eventually returned to Germany, with activists arguing that most of it stays in Russia.
There are also fears of toxic pollution in the event of any spill.
On 15 June, a petition to stop the shipments was sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was signed by environmental groups and activists from Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.
The petition calls for an end to the “colonial policy of moving hazardous cargoes from Europe to Russia’s Siberian and Ural regions”.
It argues that Germany has the technology to deal with its own nuclear waste and ends with the words, “Russia is not a dumping ground!”
Greenpeace argued last year that Russia lacked a plan to utilise depleted uranium on a large scale. The accusation was rejected by Tenex which told Russian media it was “absolutely inconsistent with reality”.