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Andrew Harding reports from Murmansk's nuclear dumping ground
 real 56k

Wednesday, 3 March, 1999, 22:13 GMT
Russia's growing nuclear dustbin
barge - Lepse
The Lepse, a 'floating Chernobyl', stores fuel rods, but is rusting
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has visited north western Russia to see for himself what many are calling Chernobyl 2 - a nuclear disaster waiting to happen.

The port of Murmansk, open all year round thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, was a household name in the 1940s.

Murmansk map
With 500,000 inhabitants Murmansk is the largest city in the Arctic Circle
It was where the Allied convoys of World War II finally found safe haven after running the gauntlet of Nazi attackers and Arctic seas as they took supplies into the Soviet Union.

Today, Murmansk risks becoming a household name for a different reason.

It is one of the parts of the world at greatest risk of a nuclear accident, largely because of the number of reactors and other debris dumped haphazardly from obsolete Soviet submarines.

In 1996 the International Atomic Energy Agency helped to set up a group to tackle post-communist Russia's horrifying nuclear legacy.

It is the Contact Expert Group (CEG) and last November it produced two reports which will go to the G7 meeting in June of leading industrial countries.

Russia unable to cope

The CEG says many people may not realise that "the situation is still getting worse".

"More submarines are being taken out of service, so more and more spent fuel is waiting to be removed and safely managed.

"Over 150 reactors are already waiting to be defuelled and dismantled.

"Unfortunately, the Russian facilities for handling this fuel and associated radioactive waste on such a scale are either not available, or inadequate."

decommissioned sub
Decommissioned submarines are left to rot
The CEG says the main problem is a shortage of money to tackle the waste.

And it says finding a solution is too urgent to wait for an economic upturn in Russia.

It describes outside help as "only a small part of what will be needed over the next few years".

But Vladimir Volkov of the Atomflot Nuclear Reprocessing Plant is convinced there is nothing for the West to be concerned about:

"I don't think it is necessary to worry about the situation with nuclear material. It is the responsibility of the Russian authorities - and they are able to handle the situation."

However, the CEG has drawn up a list of recommendations of what it believes to be the highest priorities. They include:

  • Modernising a plant for treating liquid radioactive waste at a naval repair yard in Murmansk
  • Decommissioning the Lepse, the converted barge used for storing damaged nuclear fuel rods
  • Building metal/concrete containers for storing and transporting spent submarine nuclear fuel
  • Building an interim store for spent nuclear fuel at Mayak in central Russia.

Another list identifies projects the CEG thinks just as urgent, but where it says study must give way to action now. These include:

  • Cleaning up Andreeva bay near Murmansk, the base for Russia's Northern Fleet. Fuel rods are stored there in the open and without any protection
  • Building a radioactive waste repository in north west Russia. The CEG says several possible sites are being considered, including the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya
  • Building a special facility to remove the fuel from decommissioned submarines.

British Nuclear Fuels is one foreign company involved in the region, working with the Norwegian government on the problems of Andreeva bay.

It is also part of a consortium designing a submarine fuel store.

The CEG says that a failure to act promptly over Murmansk's threat could affect "peoples and the environment not only in but also far beyond the Arctic lands and seas of northern Europe".

"The issue of spent fuel and radioactive waste management in north west Russia is a global one."

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04 Mar 99 | UK Politics
UK cash for Russian nuclear clear-up
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