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Monday, 14 August, 2000, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Russian nuclear dustbin threats
Murmansk: World's biggest nuclear dustbin
Murmansk: World's biggest nuclear dustbin
By James Robbins in Murmansk

Russia has the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.

However, it is the risk of an accident with ageing nuclear reactors from obsolete Soviet submarines which is causing most concern.

A fifth of all the world's reactors and nuclear fuel is concentrated around the Kola Peninsula, home to Russia's Northern Fleet of submarines.

Murmansk's 'radiation forecast'

An accident would threaten not only Russians, but also near neighbours Norway and Finland and it could affect much of Europe.
An accident would threaten neighours Norway and Finland - among others.
An accident would threaten northern Europe
Radio Murmansk announces the day's weather and radiation forecast. Electronic bulletin boards allow the local people to do checks on the latest radiation levels as they travel in to work.

But the people of Murmansk do not give the danger a second thought.

The Russian port of Murmansk, the biggest city in the Arctic, is the world's biggest nuclear dustbin.

The people are a hardy people who kept Hitler at bay and survived communism.

They are largely indifferent to the continuing menace of nuclear accident and catastrophe which the 20th century leaves behind.
The Lepse: Nuclear rods simply hammered into superstructure
The Lepse: Crammed full of rods
The wild coastline around Murmansk is littered with rotting Soviet submarines.

Some of the conventional submarines laid up along this coast are harmless. However, up to 100 of these machines are nuclear powered.

They are massive relics of the cold war which still have their reactors and nuclear fuel on board.

This ageing process means that the risk of corrosion and leakage is constant and fire is an even greater hazard.

In a cash-strapped world, the Russian navy is reduced to shuffling the decaying hulls from mooring to mooring.

Funding crisis

Their country simply does not have the money to remove and reprocess the radioactive fuel which threatens a vast area of northern Europe.
Nuclear processing plant:
Atomflot's processing plant: "Alarming radiation hot spot"
To find Russia's most alarming nuclear scrap heap, you must go to Atomflot at Murmansk where even the fleet of icebreakers is nuclear-powered.

One ship is still called "Soviet Union"and in its shadow is a 60 year-old ship, the Lepse which is used to store spent nuclear fuel.

Inside the Lepse, there are 642 bundles of fuel rods, two-thirds of which are apparently damaged and still hot.

It is not so much that the Lepse is an obvious, immediate, present danger. At this relatively short distance from the ship my Geiger counter is measuring radiation levels not far above ordinary background levels.
Arctic nuclear waste stockpile is growing
Arctic nuclear waste could take 50 years to clear
What appals international nuclear scientists is the fact that the Russians have crammed so many nuclear fuel rods into this one vessel. When they could not get more rods in, they simply hammered them into the superstructure causing it to buckle.

The potential for disaster here is enormous.

Scientists horrified

Where I did find alarming radiation hot spots was in the plant processing liquid nuclear waste. I took a tour which international scientists, most of whom were horrified, have also made.

Because of this eye-opener, foreign governments started providing money to speed up the work as well as to try and make nuclear processing safer.

Russia's economy does not allow us to allocate much of our resources for ecology

Yevgeny Adamov

Yevgeny Adamov is Russia's Minister for Atomic Energy and plays down the risks of an accident.

"I have never asked anyone for help," he says.

"I know that we can deal ourselves with all the problems up north."

"It will probably take a long time because at the moment the state of Russia's economy does not allow us to allocate much of our resources for ecology."

But Russia is far from open about the real dangers.

Naval hero
Alexander Nikitin: Whistelblower who had to speak out.
Alexander Nikitin: Whistleblower who spoke out
Alexander Nikitin helped expose the threat which faces Europe. As his reward, Captain Nikitin, formerly of the Russian navy, was put on trial for treason.

He was only cleared last December.

Captain Nikitin was a Soviet submarine commander and a Naval specialist in nuclear safety. He told me how he quit the navy in 1992, horrified by what he found.

"I have decided to talk about the submarines because it is a real danger, it is a real problem," he says.

"I wanted to draw attention to it so that it's dealt with. I didn't want just to hear talking about it. It requires action."


There is a little action, but it is painfully slow.

Near Murmansk, nuclear workers continue to load uranium fuel from an obsolete submarine for the train journey to a reprocessing plant. Still the workers cannot keep up with the increasing stockpile of nuclear waste in the Arctic. Rather than shrinking, the nuclear waste continues to grow.

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