years, the Russians dumped tons of nuclear waste in the region around Murmansk. At present about a hundred
nuclear submarines are laid up there awaiting decommissioning. At a rate of between six and, at best, eight
vessels per year, progress is hardly overwhelming. Engineers can only observe that the level of radioactivity
above ground is 5000 times that of France’s underground nuclear test on Mururoa atoll. The Russians do not have
the money to clean up the mess. What to us would be a nuclear apocalypse is already a bitter reality in
Welcome to Murmansk, welcome to the biggest nuclear waste dump in the world! That seems to be the message which the blizzard in the desolate Arctic landscape conveys to the taciturn bus passengers. On board the speeding bus are a delegation of Members of the European Parliament headed by Bart Staes of Agalev, chairman of the European Parliament’s working party for relations between the European Union and Russia. They are accompanied by a few Members of the Russian Parliament, the Deputy Governor of Murmansk Region, environmental activists from the Norwegian organisation Bellona and the legendary Alexander Nikitin. Nikitin is a Russian nuclear engineer who sailed on nuclear submarines for years. Between 1987 and 1992 he was chief inspector of nuclear safety at the Ministry of Defence. When the disastrous situation finally became too much for him, he resigned from his post and publicised it. The KGB promptly accused him of high treason and spying and put him in prison for ten months. If it had been up to the Russian security service, he would still be in prison now. In fact, this is the only case the KGB has ever lost, a fact which does not please the organisation one bit. In September 2000, the Russian Supreme Court acquitted Nikitin on all charges. After that, he began to campaign for the Norwegian environmental organisation Bellona, which has published his reports.
For hours the bus charges on, bearing the unusual group of visitors along icy, virtually deserted roads towards Andreeva Bay in the far north-west of the Kola Peninsula. In this military zone, which until recently was top secret, nuclear waste from the Russian Northern Fleet has been stored since 1959 under appallingly inadequate conditions. Until Nikitin made his revelations six years ago, the rest of the world knew nothing about the nearly 13 tons of nuclear waste in bunkers whose concrete was decaying, in rusty containers, in wooden chests or even unprotected in the open air. Nikitin’s report was such dynamite that it revolutionised Russia’s image in the eyes of the world. Here, the Russians have dumped more than eleven thousand (11 000!) containers of radioactive waste into the Barents Sea and Kara Sea since 1959. Moreover, in the early 1960s they did not yet have any experience of sinking containers. When the annoying things refused to go under at first, the best idea the Russians could come up with was to pepper them with holes from machine gun bullets so that they filled with water and sank. Radioactive pollution? Njet, sir! Thirteen severely damaged nuclear reactors from submarines which were so contaminated that nobody knew what to do with them were thrown into the sea, radioactive fuel and all. The authorities have lost count: they no longer know how much radioactive waste and how many contaminated nuclear installations there are in the area. There is no doubt, however, that the Kola Peninsula contains the biggest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world, and Murmansk is the home port of all the nuclear submarines in the Russian Northern Fleet.
Like a teacher during a school excursion, the Deputy Governor of Murmansk takes the microphone at the front of the bus. ‘The fact is that our region is stuck with a nuclear problem and we must try to make things safe for the future.’ It sounds like a dreadful cliché, but even to admit that a problem exists is quite a step for anybody in authority in Russia to take. It is a departure from the long-standing Russian political tradition which still prevails. The previous day, during a working visit by the European delegation to the Duma, the Russian Parliament in Moscow, quite a different picture had been presented. Mr Roketski, the Russian Parliament’s energy specialist, was unaware of any problems. ‘Russia is making rapid progress with the reprocessing of nuclear waste,’ he said. ‘We have sufficient capacity to recycle all our spent nuclear fuel. A lot of nonsense is talked about the subject, but ultimately it is a matter of science and technology. Our scientists need only work together and everything will be fine.’
The Deputy Governor of Murmansk on the other hand says, ‘The Chernobyl disaster was caused by a lack of know-how and of technical maintenance. An accident in this region would be an even greater disaster. We know that our children will have to live on this planet, so we are doing everything we can to prevent further pollution. But at the moment nobody has a ready-made solution. There is no clear policy, no proper planning and no money either.’
You may call it nuclear blackmail if you like, but it is estimated that the Russians need a billion dollars to sort out the nuclear problems here. It is a fact that the whole world, and particularly Europe, will be affected if things go seriously wrong in Northern Russia. In hope of a major injection of cash by the European Union, the Russian authorities have finally given permission for the delegation of Members of the European Parliament to be shown the lamentable state of the nuclear storage sites. Andreeva Bay is the biggest storage site for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear-powered vessels. Here, barely 55 kilometres from the Norwegian border, nearly 22 000 spent fuel rods, 93 nuclear reactor cores and 35 tons of liquid nuclear radioactive waste emit their baleful radiation. It was planned that, as from 1962, the nuclear waste should be moved to Chelyabinsk, 2300 km away, for recycling to produce plutonium. But these plans were rarely, if ever, implemented, and the nuclear waste piled up. For years, the storage basins at Andreeva Bay have been brimful. As if this were not enough, in February 1982 a serious nuclear accident occurred when 3000 cubic metres of radioactive cooling water escaped into the environment. In 1995, around 250 cubic metres of radioactive liquid escaped from a rusty storage tank. Off the coast, innumerable containers, each with 250 cubic metres of radioactive cooling water inside, have been sunk. And now the European delegation, assisted by the nuclear scientists Alexander Nikitin and Nils Boehmer of Bellona, is to be permitted to assess the seriousness of the situation for itself.
THE DAMNED MILITARY
At least, that's what everybody was thinking. After pelting through the frozen countryside for three hours, the bus comes to a halt. Out of the great white void, men whose duties and powers are unclear, suddenly appear. The passengers are instructed to transfer to the rear compartments of trucks, because further ahead the road is unsuitable for normal vehicles. The Bellona specialists are unerringly picked out and denied permission to get into the trucks. In the middle of nowhere, the parliamentary delegation is faced with a fait accompli: Nikitin, Boehmer and the other environmental activists are compelled to stay in the bus – otherwise nobody at all will be allowed to visit Andreeva Bay. By a miraculous coincidence, it turns out that mobile phones do not work in this area, either. Willy-nilly, robbed of their expert advisers and bumping along a rutted path, the MEPs continue their journey. At their destination another surprise awaits them: the reception committee has installed itself in an unfinished prefab to lecture us uninformatively. Even so, it soon becomes clear to those sufficiently in the know that the problems are far greater than the Russian authorities will ever admit. Larger or smaller leaks have occurred at all the storage sites. No money is available for maintenance, so that at least half of the nuclear material is stored unsafely. In fact, the level of radioactivity is now so high that a concrete and lead sarcophagus ought to be built over the waste, as was done for the reactor which exploded at Chernobyl. Plans for this have been in existence for twenty years, but a start has never been made on their execution, for lack of money.
When the chairman, Bart Staes, finally urges that the delegation be allowed to see the nuclear waste storage sites, he meets with an uncomprehending njet. Have the MEPs undertaken this arduous expedition through the Arctic for nothing, then? The Russians produce the standard Soviet-era excuses: they did not receive the list of members of the delegation soon enough, this is a secret military area which falls under the Ministry of Defence, surely we must understand that: there must have been a failure of communication between Moscow and Murmansk, blah blah blah… Staes gets angry and says that his delegation might just as well have stayed at the hotel to listen to these fabrications. The Russians try to appease him by saying that the Ministry of Defence is concerned about the health of visitors to Andreeva Bay and that they do not want to take any chances, particularly in the case of the honourable Members of the European Parliament. Staes can argue until he is blue in the face: nobody will get to see the installations which were the whole point of the journey. Deeply disappointed, treated with contempt and correspondingly offended, the European delegation retreats to the waiting trucks. On the way back, in a tête-à-tête with Bart Staes, Deputy Governor Selin apologises. ‘The damned military!’ he says. ‘They are still living in a bygone era. But now at least you will understand how careful I constantly have to be.’
A DIRTY BOMB
Sergei Mitrochin, a liberal-democratic Member of the Russian Parliament representing the Yabloko bloc, was also accompanying the delegation. He has been studying his country’s nuclear waste policy for years, and has previously been able to inspect Andreeva Bay. ‘The storage sites are in such a state of decay that the best thing would be to dismantle Andreeva Bay completely,’ says Mitrochin. ‘It would be virtually impossible to put things in order, because the storage tanks are leaking, water is getting into the spent fuel rods, radioactive contamination is spreading everywhere: into the groundwater, the air and the sea. But it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to dismantle it completely, and even the one and a half million dollars needed to build a sarcophagus to contain the most dangerous tanks is not available. Although it is like throwing money out of the window, we cannot just let things get worse and worse until a definitive solution is found. The spent nuclear fuel has been lying here for more than twenty years, all the storage tanks are too full and only occasionally does a train depart for the Mayak reprocessing facility. The first step should be to recover the nuclear reactor cores which are drifting about in the sea in containers, bring them onto dry land and store them there. Then all the areas which have been contaminated with radioactivity should be cleaned up. And that is just the beginning of the clean-up operation. At least Andreeva Bay has storage sites, however dilapidated. In Gremika, the easternmost naval base on the Kola Peninsula, the nuclear waste is just lying about on the quayside with a concrete wall around it!’
Nor is Mitrochin greatly impressed by Mayak in the Urals, where spent nuclear fuel rods are reprocessed to produce plutonium for military purposes. ‘Liquid radioactive waste has simply been discharged into lakes and rivers. Safety standards are a joke, the fence around the place is either broken or non-existent. Once I went into the reprocessing plant uninvited and found myself standing on the roof of a nuclear waste store. You can imagine how easy it would be for terrorists to get hold of radioactive material to build a ‘dirty bomb’. It has already happened a number of times in Russia, most recently in February. Incidentally, Minatom (the Ministry of Atomic Energy, which is responsible) is appallingly corrupt. It employs more than 1 million people and inspects all nuclear operations, including those which are military. Minatom is above the law and has never been reformed. It is regarded as inviolable and is answerable to no one: not to Parliament, not to the government, not even to President Putin! Minatom is a state within the state. The Russian Chamber of Audit recently discovered that in the past four years Minatom had received $270 million (nearly €300 m) from abroad for ‘management of spent nuclear fuel’. Nobody knows where all this money has gone. Nor what was given in return for it. No documents or contracts relating to these transactions exist. The contract between Minatom and Bulgaria for reprocessing of fissile material from Bulgaria has actually been concluded via small offshore companies in tax havens. It is anyone’s guess how much money is disappearing into the pockets of Minatom officials, and nobody knows exactly how much highly hazardous nuclear material there is about the place.’
‘We shall get on better at the Nerpa shipyard. It is under the control of the civil authorities, not the military,’ Deputy Governor Alexander Selin had assured us after our inglorious departure from Andreeva Bay. But hours later, when the bus arrives at the shipyard, a group of security officers immediately boards it. With a list in their hand, they check the passports of all the delegation members painfully slowly. Everyone is issued with a written code of conduct. It is strictly forbidden to take photographs, videos or films, to make sound recordings or to use mobile phones. The management of Nerpa hopes that we will appreciate the need for these restrictions; it will deal severely with any breach. Preceded and followed by a police escort, the bus proceeds towards the main building of the enormous shipyard.
The Nerpa shipyard is thirty years old and a legacy of the Cold War. At one time its main activity was repairing Russia’s universally dreaded nuclear submarines, providing them with nuclear fuel and launching them. Now it mainly dismantles decommissioned vessels (particularly nuclear-powered vessels) from Russia’s Northern Fleet and turns them into scrap metal. ‘However, we do not have sufficient capacity,’ the yard’s chief engineer elaborately explains. ‘We can only dismantle between six and a maximum of eight boats per year, and at the moment there are more than a hundred on the waiting list.’ The wreck of the Kursk is also in the Nerpa graveyard for submarines. It is out of sight, in dry-dock. ‘We have already dismantled the Kursk’s torpedoes and missiles,’ says the chief engineer. ‘At the moment we are cutting out the reactor block. By the end of this year we hope to have removed all the nuclear fuel from the Kursk, so that we can begin the final dismantling. Out of sympathy with the families of the Kursk’s crew, the work on the Kursk is being assigned top priority. The Kursk is so symbolic that it is getting in the way of our normal work,’ sighs the shipyard manager. ‘We could certainly do with more floating docks, and we do not know what to do with the reactors from the nuclear submarines we dismantle. At present we are storing them in floating containers, which is not the safest way of dealing with decommissioned nuclear reactors. All the plans for storage on land are ready, but we do not have the requisite $100 million (€110 m) to carry them out.’ The engineers are perfectly well aware of the nuclear danger. Insofar as possible, they have also worked out scenarios to avert the worst. But for whatever reason, in all too many cases plans get no further than the drawing board. That is how things used to be in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and evidently it is how they still are in the Russian Federation: there are plenty of fine plans, but in practice they are rarely, if ever, carried out.
THE CÔTE D’AZUR OF THE BARENTS SEA
Then it is time for a tour of the Nerpa shipyard. After long negotiations, the security service allows the delegation’s official press photographer – but no one else – to take photographs. All is well until the head of security sees the digital cameras… ‘No photographs!’ he barks, unilaterally revoking the compromise which has been arrived at with such difficulty. ‘The equipment is much too professional!’ Should we laugh or cry? Bart Staes explodes. Stamping his feet, the MEP noisily leaves the dumbfounded group. ‘If that is your last word, I am staying in the bus. I have been messed about with long enough. You just carry on without a chairman.’ Only thanks to this unadulteratedly Khrushchevian display (the Soviet leader once caused a diplomatic incident in the UN General Assembly by taking off his shoe and banging it angrily on the table) do the Russian hosts begin to appreciate that good will has to be mutual. After a further ear-bashing, the head of security authorises photography, although two security officers are assigned to watch the photographer closely.
Not that there is much spectacular to take pictures of. The delegation is taken to see a gigantic grab crane and a shredder installation from which pieces of mangled steel and iron emerge. ‘Guaranteed free of radioactivity, thanks to a rigorous monitoring system,’ Nerpa’s chief engineer assures us. The next stop is a shed where copper is recovered from the cables of dismantled submarines – a deafeningly noisy process. Upon request, a brief halt is called at a landing stage where four submarines are waiting to be scrapped. There they lie at anchor, the awe-inspiring submarines, the black beauties of the Russian Northern Fleet, copies of which figured in such action films as K-19 and The Hunt for Red October. Paradoxically enough, now that they are no longer at large on the high seas they pose an even greater threat to the population of the world than they did when they were at full operational strength during the Cold War. Most of the vessels moored here have damaged ballast tanks. They are radioactive wrecks which are kept afloat as best as can be managed. At the present rate of dismantling, it will take more than a hundred years to deal with the whole of this nuclear armada. And nobody has a clue what to do with the tons of solid and liquid radioactive waste and all the contaminated material.
After the tour, the Nerpa management invites the whole company to dinner. True to Russian tradition, it involves interminable toasts. ‘For me, submarines emerging from the shredder as scrap are the ultimate proof that the Cold War is over,’ says delegation chairman Bart Staes as he knocks back a vodka. He has further good news for the Russians: ‘This afternoon I received confirmation that the Murmansk region is eligible for part of the €60 m which the European Union has budgeted for making radioactive waste safe.’ This message immediately improves relations between the two sides. Indeed, the local governor feels moved to express himself with some bravado: ‘In Murmansk and its area, nobody is afraid. We are strong, and with your financial assistance we shall solve the nuclear problem.’ The plain-spoken mayor of Snezhnogorsk, a nearby village of 16 000 inhabitants which provides the Nerpa shipyard with its work-force, goes further still, laughing off the dangers posed by radiation. ‘All my people are as fit as a fiddle! Look at me: I have two sturdy daughters and two delightful granddaughters. This is the Côte d’Azur of the Barents Sea! So don’t come lecturing us! Give us financial assistance and we’ll do the rest! Cheers!’
POTENTIAL ATOM BOMBS
So far only the nuclear legacy of the military has been discussed. However, there is no need for civil projects in and around Murmansk to feel outclassed when it comes to radiation. Next morning a visit to Atomflot, the base for nuclear-powered ice-breakers, is scheduled. These civil ice-breakers have the task of enabling supply ships to reach Northern Siberia. In 1959 the Soviet Union commissioned the Lenin, the first nuclear-powered ice-breaker. During the 1960s two serious reactor accidents occurred on the Lenin, during which nuclear fuel rods and even the core of a nuclear reactor melted down. The best solution the Russians could devise was to dump the eternally radioactive waste in the Arctic Ocean near Nova Zembla. At present the Lenin is in port, a mere kilometre from the centre of Murmansk. The plan is to turn her into a floating museum, but that would cost a million dollars, and the local authorities have only $18 000 (approximately €20 000) available for the scheme.
A large proportion of the severely damaged nuclear fuel rods from the Lenin were stored on board the Lepse, a rusty freighter built in 1936, which is moored at Atomflot’s quay. Until recently it was guarded by only one man: a ludicrous security measure for a radioactive waste bin which barely remains afloat. The gamma radiation measured in and around the ship is 100 times the normal level. Anyone who spends four days in the vicinity of the Lepse receives their maximum annual dose of radiation. On board are nuclear fuel rods enriched up to 90%, making them potential nuclear bombs. The Lepse is no longer deemed seaworthy, but to unload her safely would require 1700 highly qualified workers. If all went smoothly, the operation could be completed in three years. If the Lepse were to sink, the nuclear contamination of the Barents Sea would be incalculable. It is estimated that completely cleaning up and dismantling the Lepse would cost $50 m (around €55 m). It need hardly be said that Russia cannot spare this amount.
But other countries, with the nearby Norway in the vanguard, are coming to the rescue financially. In cooperation with the environmental organisation Bellona, the Norwegian Government has built Lepse Village nearby. From a more or less safe distance on the quayside, the contaminated vessel is being monitored without the crew’s having to be exposed to the enormous levels of radioactivity on board any longer. This is a step forward, but not a huge one, of course. Before the Murmansk region can be definitively cleaned up, there are an inordinate number of practical problems to be solved, starting with the inflexible Russian administration. Russia is still, for example, refusing to sign up to the MNEPR (Multilateral Nuclear Environment Programme). Why? Because Russia wants to tax the foreign financial aid as it comes in! Because Western companies which have the necessary robotics and other technology do not want to be held legally liable by the Russians in the event of a nuclear accident. Because no insurance company in the world is prepared to cover this enormous risk … etc, etc.
Yet Frederic Hauge, chairman of Bellona, is optimistic. ‘It was never our intention simply to tell nuclear horror stories,’ he says. ‘Now, in 2002, at least we have a good overview of the problems and challenges facing us. In 1989 the wildest rumours were still circulating about the radioactive waste in and around Murmansk. I remember our first talks with the authorities here. “How much radioactivity is there in a nuclear submarine?” we would ask. “No more than in the West,” was their reply. Now we are seeking solutions together. As well as surveying and analysing the nuclear threat, Bellona is providing technology, strategies and funding to clean the place up. Thanks to our protests, Russia’s nuclear testing at Nova Zembla has stopped too. In the past ten years there have been a lot of improvements here. Since 1995 the military have begun to adopt a more flexible attitude. The building of Lepse Village was a civil project, but it has done a good deal to increase the confidence felt by the military. We are also putting a lot of energy into training and educating a new generation of workers who are learning to guard radioactive material in a careful and responsible manner and will in due course have to treat it. Because that is the heart of the problem: you cannot just leave nuclear waste lying where it is and hope for the best!’
If there were to be a nuclear alert in Northern Russia, the whole world would be terrified. The on-going economic crisis means that environmental problems, even of a nuclear nature, are not a priority in Russia at the moment. It seems that only a nuclear disaster could change this state of affairs. Let us hope that Murmansk will not before long be bracketed together with Chernobyl.