Tension primes nuclear time bomb
in the Russian Arctic

It was an act born of desperation and it starkly revealed the extent of Russia's disintegration. Last week the governor of Russia's most northwesterly region phoned his counterpart across the border in northern Norway to plead for humanitarian aid for the stricken local population. Yevgeny Yevdolimov, the governor of Murmansk, completely bypassed Moscow, an unprecedented move which would formerly have been unthinkable, even suicidal.

The Norwegians responded with an immediate donation of more than $500,000 to be added to the large quantities of food and clothing already donated by churches and charities. Apart from their sympathy with the northern Russians, Norwegians fear chaos across their border from the collapse of Russia's banks, unpaid wages and the absence of food from the shops.

But what disturbs them even more than the centrifugal forces threatening Russia are the potentially devastating effects on efforts to neutralize the most radioactive region in the world, the Kola peninsula.

The Kola is home to 18 percent of the world's nuclear reactors and has their highest concentration anywhere. Russia's northern fleet, its most powerful by far during the Cold War era, has 120 retired submarines, most of them with two nuclear reactors, making a total of 200 reactors. Most of the retired submarines lie rusting in a perilously dangerous condition at piers around the peninsula, the nearest as close as 40 kilometers to the Norwegian border. Many still have reactors and spent nuclear fuel on board.

What rudimentary storage facilities there are for the radioactive nuclear materials that have been extracted from the submarines are already full to overflowing. "Radiation is a big problem," said Vladimir Blinov, the assistant director of the Murmansk Shipping Company, in the city where radiation levels are published daily with the weather forecast. "Until 1986 nobody thought about nuclear waste. Until then we sank radioactive waste into the sea. In 1986 we stopped. As a result the amount of waste on shore has increased. But without money we cannot maintain radiation safety levels."

"The situation has become far more dangerous as a result of the economic crisis," adds Nils Bohmer, a nuclear physics research scientist with Bellona, a Norwegian organization specializing in nuclear questions, which has an office in Murmansk. "The Russians have more to think about than the nuclear pollution all around them. Their main concern is where their next meal is coming from. If you are in charge of a laid-up nuclear submarine and you are now into the fifth month of not being paid, your mind is not on the job. To make the current crisis worse there has been a bad potato harvest in the rest of Russia. Potatoes are now better guarded than nuclear materials."

Dangerous sites lie close to dwellings. From the foot of a giant concrete statue of a Soviet soldier that commemorates the defeat of Germany in the Second World War you can look down on one such hazard. An ageing Hotel-class submarine at a quayside in Murmansk fjord is so dangerous that no one dare move it for fear of causing a nuclear explosion. The submarine is only 300 meters from a block of flats. The population of Murmansk is 370,000.

Further down the fjord is the Lepse, a retired service ship on which 640 spent nuclear fuel assemblies are stored. Workers used sledgehammers to force fuel assemblies into containers they did not fit, damaging most. The entire area is radioactive. If the Lepse were to capsize there could be an explosion that releases half the lethal radioactivity recorded after the Chernobyl disaster.

A "Chernobyl in slow motion", according to Bohmer, is taking place at Andreeva Bay, a desolate spot only 40km from the Norwegian border. Here 21,000 spent fuel assemblies, enough for 90 nuclear reactors, and 12,000 cubic meters of solid and liquid radioactive waste are stored in concrete bunkers. "The concrete is very poor," said Bohmer. "Every autumn they used to fill the cracks to stop rain water entering. But this year they have no money. From October snow will get in, turn to ice and expand. The danger is that there will be leakages into the sea where fish are caught that are sold within the European Union."

Many of the submarines have been withdrawn from service under the Start International disarmament treaties. In accordance with Start, the submarines are cut in two, the missile compartments removed and the two halves welded loosely together. Air is pumped in to keep the submarines afloat, but tell-tale bubbles rising to the surface around them show that many are leaking. In addition to the submarines themselves, nuclear rubbish is stored at 11 sites in the Kola peninsula. This includes at least four SS-21 missiles, 20 medium and short-range nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads.

Crews stationed on laid-up submarines are often unfit, untrained or incompetent. Security is lax. "A terrorist could use nuclear fuel to make a dirty bomb by mixing it with Semtex," said Thomas Nilsen, a Bellona researcher. "If you mixed two kilograms of strontium-90 with Semtex and exploded it in London most of the city would have to be evacuated for two to three years."

The despair in the Russian submarine fleet has produced a disturbing increase in incidents. On 11 September a sailor went berserk on a modern Akula-class nuclear submarine and killed eight people before shooting himself. Six days earlier three people were taken hostage at a nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlja in the Arctic. Two weeks ago two people were killed in an incident on board a Russian submarine in the Black Sea and an interior guard at Russia's nuclear reprocessing plant at Mayak in Siberia killed three colleagues.

But the utter lack of confidence in safety standards was revealed last May when there was an explosion on board a submarine loaded with 16 nuclear warheads in the Barents Sea after water leaked into the missile compartment.

As the submarine limped towards Severomorsk, near Murmansk, the headquarters of the northern fleet, wild rumors spread. The city fathers fled to the hills. Kindergartens were evacuated. Police started taking iodine pills. Norwegian intelligence noted that after the incident no Russian missile submarines put to sea for three months.

Norway and the United States have signed agreements with Russia to help clean up the nuclear mess. Norway has set aside $50 million to build a waste processing plant and the European Commission has also provided funding. But the total cost of cleaning the Kola peninsula is $1.5 billion, according to Nikolay Yegerov, Russia's deputy atomic energy minister. So far only 16 submarines have been dismantled, none to international safety standards.

The West's efforts are further hampered by the refusal to allow outside experts onto submarine bases. The fleet still has 67 operational nuclear submarines and clings to the vestiges of its former formidable reputation.

As an immediate priority this winter Norway has offered to pay for plastic coverings at Andreeva Bay to prevent radioactive leakage into the sea. But the project is deadlocked. Despite many promises, not a single foreigner has been allowed on to the site; a videotape was considered inadequate. Corruption is so widespread in Russia that Norway insists that wherever funds are provided its experts must verify that they are being spent as promised.

The Russians also insist on levying a 50 percent tax on all equipment to be used to clean up the peninsula. Though a civilian nuclear power plant in Kola, considered as dangerous as Chernobyl, has finally been made safer with western help, a new generator was held on the border for two years because the Russians tried to charge tax on it.

As long ago as 1995 it was agreed that two western companies, SGN of France and British Nuclear Fuels, would carry out a study to determine how to remove the spent nuclear fuel from the Lepse using robots. But the project has gone no further. No matter how bad the winter - and expectations are that it will be grim - no one is expecting that large numbers of Russians will try to flee to Norway. The Russians have a seemingly limitless capacity to absorb suffering. In any case, the Russian border police have tight control over the short frontier with Norway.

But a nuclear accident would be a different matter, says Ommund Hegghelm, the state secretary at the Norwegian defense ministry. "Russians are incredibly loyal to their country. The only thing that could produce a refugee problem would be a nuclear catastrophe. When things happen in the nuclear field the margin between catastrophe and pure luck is very small."

Author: Ian Mather in Murmansk

Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.

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