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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 August 2007, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Russia watches over nuclear wrecks
By James Rodgers
BBC News, Andreeva Bay, Russia

Mural of Marx and Lenin at Saida Bay, Russia
The incongruous Soviet mural is a reminder of the Cold War
Above the waves of the Barents Sea there is a mural of Marx and Lenin, like a faded tattoo.

Below it, in the waters of Saida Bay, lie other relics of the Soviet Union - the rusting hulls of nuclear submarines. They are no longer part of a Cold War armada, but the radiation risk means they are still deadly.

Relations between Britain and Russia have soured since the end of last year amid the row over the death of former secret agent Alexander Litvinenko and the expulsion of diplomats from London and Moscow. But both sides say they will not let that harm their co-operation over nuclear safety.

The UK Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks, was the first British government official to visit the Barents Sea region since the Litvinenko row escalated in July.

He went there with delegations from Britain and Norway - two members of the Global Partnership programme set up to reduce the threat from nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.

"There is a serious matter between us at the present time. We're not going to disguise that. We've made our position clear to Moscow on that. Someone was murdered on our territory. That's a very important matter," Mr Wicks said.

"But this partnership will continue. There will still be diplomatic relations between our countries, and it's important that this vital work continues."

Surveillance

At the spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Andreeva Bay, north-west of Saida Bay, you can see why.

Russia Arctic map
It is dangerous. The delegation had to wear protective clothing even for their brief visit.

It is a sensitive location. The Russians told television crews, including the BBC, they had to agree to their pictures being censored if they wished to film.

It wasn't the first problem we had had. Earlier in the day, at the naval dockyard in Polyarny, we had been prevented from filming a submarine which was due to be broken up.

A man in civilian clothes suspected we had been taking pictures. I assume he was an agent of the FSB, the Russian secret police. He demanded to see what was on the cassette in our camera.

We had not even been able to film the delegation looking at the submarine. Even with the Cold War over, the Soviet navy's nuclear legacy is still surrounded by secrecy and suspicion.

Safety fears

At Andreeva Bay, I left my TV colleagues behind and boarded a bus which SevRAO, the company which manages the site, had provided for visitors.

Rusting hulls of Soviet vessels
The volume of nuclear waste alarms Russia's neighbours
Inside, a sunken ship lay on its side near the quay. Some 30 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel are stored here. It seemed incredible that the site had been allowed to become so neglected.

You could see the difference that international funding had made. New facilities had been built to replace the crumbling, Soviet-era buildings.

A British government report published in December 2005 spoke of "significant levels of contamination of the ground" here.

In for the long haul

It was a relief to be on the journey out again.

The Norwegian border is just 45km (28 miles) from Andreeva Bay. Norway has paid for improvements to the site - including a new fence to keep out terrorists. The Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Liv Monica Stubholt, seemed generally pleased with the way the partnership was working - but admitted it was not always easy.

"We have an issue, both with openness and transparency," she explained. "We would like to see a better flow of information. And we would also like the experts to be able to share more freely what they learn and their research results."

Then there is the question of whether Britain and others should be paying for the clean-up. Russia is not the poor country it was in the 1990s. Valery Panteleev, director of SevRAO, believes everyone is benefiting.

"Where we're dealing with radioactive waste - probably these British, Italians and Swedes we're working with will get something good from it too," he said. "The way I look at it, we're working together everywhere."

When we left Saida Bay, there was a man fishing just a few metres from the rusting hull of a decommissioned nuclear submarine. Some residents of this region seem resigned to life alongside radioactive waste. Countries on Russia's borders and beyond cannot be complacent.


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