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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Nuclear waste poses Arctic threat
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News, Murmansk, Russia

Submarines at Severomorsk marine port
Russia's submarine fleet marks its centenary this week
Russia marks the centenary of its submarine fleet this week - but one part of its legacy is no cause for celebration.

For almost half a century, the Northern Fleet has operated two-thirds of the navy's nuclear-powered vessels.

Much of the spent fuel from these vessels has been dumped directly into the Barents and Kara seas, with the remainder placed in vastly inadequate storage.

Wasteland

A journey west along the Kola Peninsula's rugged Barents Sea coastline displays a natural beauty that belies the harsh realities lying hidden below the choppy surface.

Map

About halfway between Severomorsk and the Norwegian border lies Andreeva Bay, an environmental nightmare where the waters are completely devoid of life.

Leaks from the region's largest nuclear waste storage facility mean no fish will ever swim in this fjord. Onshore, both the soil and the groundwater are badly contaminated.

On this vast site, 32 tons of highly radioactive waste with a high uranium content is stored in crumbling concrete bunkers and rusting tanks and containers - about a third of the nuclear waste mountain that can be found on the Kola Peninsula.

Most of it is spent fuel from the Northern Fleet's nuclear powered submarines, some from nuclear powered ice breakers.

And these days nobody, not even the officials in charge, suggests it is safe.

Spent nuclear fuel rods are not stored safely. (Image: Bellona)

"The current storage facilities are in poor condition," according to an official from SevRao, a division of Russia's nuclear industry agency Rosatom, which has taken over control of Andreeva Bay from the ministry of defence.

"This is the biggest environmental threat facing the Murmansk region today," according to Andrei Zolotkov, director of local green group Bellona.

"The amount of radioactivity is equivalent to 93 submarine reactors, or comparable with Chernobyl."

Patient campaigner

Mr Zolotkov's warning attracts attention in Murmansk, where he is seen as an authority on this matter.

Not only is he a former crew member of both nuclear-powered ice breakers and service ships unloading spent nuclear fuel from submarines, he is also a former member of Russia's parliament, the Duma, during Soviet times.

He has long worked for the radiation safety department at Murmansk Shipping Company, which operates both nuclear-powered ships and nuclear storage facilities.

But most importantly, Mr Zolotkov was among those who first raised the alarm back in the 1990s and he has been campaigning for a solution ever since.

Last week there was a breakthrough - the first public hearing of its kind, held in a former Communist Party building in the centre of Murmansk.

Andreva Bay public hearing
The hearing into the Andreeva waste problem was well attended

More than a decade of campaigning has resulted in an action plan for dealing with the nuclear waste mountain at Andreeva Bay, so at last the people of Murmansk have been told face-to-face what they have known for years.

"All installations are degrading and in poor condition and pollution levels are increasing, not decreasing," a SevRao official says.

Mounting task ahead

The people of Murmansk thus faces a stark choice.

  • leave the waste where it is and face guaranteed disaster

  • go in to clean it up, move it to proper and permanent storage facilities or transport it to a reprocessing plant

The task is hugely complicated and extremely expensive, at an estimated cost of $4bn [2.14bn].

Both technical and economic assistance will come from the Kola Peninsula's northern neighbours, as well as from London, Brussels and Washington, to construct buildings and storage facilities.

But Russia will take on the massive operating costs and the task of actually shifting the waste over the next six years, a challenge that will involve a string of potentially lethal operations.

Remote-controlled machines will be used to load the waste into sealed transport containers. Much of the waste will be taken to Murmansk, where it will be encapsulated for long-term storage in a new, modern storage facility.

Waste that can be reprocessed will be sent south from Murmansk to Mayak, hundreds of kilometres away in the Urals.

And herein lies the crux of the dilemma facing local people: there is no railway line to Andreeva Bay, and the road is unsafe. Thus the only solution is to use ships to transport the waste, straight into and through the heart of Murmansk.

For years the locals will have to live with the knowledge that several hundred nuclear waste shipments will pass through the increasingly busy port, where some of it will be put into permanent storage.

The rest of the waste will be reloaded onto specially built trains with armed guards that will pass through the city on its journey across the Kola Peninsula, where it will pass several remote towns.

And for the Kola Peninsula's people this is just the beginning, as it begins to tackle a nuclear waste mountain weighing almost 100 tons.

Risks will have to be taken, tough choices must be made.

But as Mr Zolotkov points out: "If we do nothing, the situation will only get worse".


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