Russian officials dealt a blow to environmentalists yesterday by rejecting their petition for a national referendum that would have let citizens vote on whether to allow the import of spent nuclear fuel into the country. At least 2 million signatures were needed to force a referendum, and enviros turned in nearly 2.5 million, but the Central Elections Commission declared more than 600,000 of them invalid. Enviros, who dispute the legitimacy of the petition rejection, say the government is now likely to pass a bill that would change Russian law to allow nuclear waste imports. The Nuclear Power Ministry hopes to raise tens of millions of dollars by accepting and storing up to 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from 14 Asian and European countries. The referendum also would have asked voters whether they supported the existence of a national environment protection agency and forestry agency. In May, President Vladimir Putin closed these two agencies and shifted their responsibilities to the Natural Resources Ministry, which enviros say is concerned only with resource extraction, not environmental protection.

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