In Murmansk’s nuclear graveyard in Russia, three nuclear submarines with thedestructive power of 200 nuclear bombs lie rusting in the icy water. Thesubmarines will never be used again. These vessels, and dozens of otherslike them, could cause a catastrophe which would make the Chernobyl disasterpale into insignificance.
Two years ago Robin Cook, then British Foreign Secretary, promised $16.5million to help with the nuclear clean-up in the Murmansk region, as part ofa larger program of nuclear clean-up in Russia, where, during the Sovietera, environmental considerations always came last.
But none of the money has been delivered, and a recent set of talks betweenthe two sides ended inconclusively. If the delays continue much longer,Russians believe it may be too late. Yuri Yevdokimov, Governor of theMurmansk region, says, “I don’t want to be rude. But I think that few peoplein Europe have appreciated the nature of the real risk.”
Until recently, the Nerpa submarine repair yard was off-limits. Now theplant managers want the rest of the world to help them to stave off thedanger of nuclear apocalypse – and they believe that the danger is real. Inthe words of Pavel Steblin, director of the plant, “God forbid that atragedy should happen here. But if it does, the world would be involved.”
British officials argue that the Russian bureaucracy is obstructing theclean-up. The only thing both sides agree on is that if something goeswrong, it could go wrong in a big way.The submerged subs are just northwest of Murmansk, a city of half a millioninhabitants and endless crumbling apartment blocks. This is a place ofSoviet-style desolation.
The submarines are only one part of a much larger problem in the region.There are 200 nuclear reactors and 80 nuclear submarines waiting to bedecommissioned throughout the area. The Lepse, an old Soviet supply ship inMurmansk Bay, has hundreds of spent nuclear fuel assemblies on board.
Alexander Ruzankin, chairman of the nuclear conversion and radiation safetycommittee for the region, says, “I don’t know of any technology that couldtreat that boat properly.”Yet, if the rusting Lepse were to sink, it would unleash radioactivity on acatastrophic scale. At Andreyeva Bay, further west, 20,000 spent fuel rodsstored in rusty containers would be equally difficult to deal with. The areais a catalogue of environmental nightmares.
According to Ruzankin, submarines are being decommissioned at the rate ofaround 15 a year, and to do this safely is expensive. The Russians calculatethat billions of dollars are needed to get the nuclear problems safely undercontrol. Russia, it is generally agreed, cannot afford to foot the wholebill. Other money comes from the Norwegians, the Americans and the EuropeanUnion.
Ruzankin is impatient both with his own government and with the Europeanfailure to acknowledge the potential problem for the rest of the world. Healso suggests that the Kremlin is almost as reluctant to focus on theproblem as the rest of Europe. As he points out, “Moscow is far away. We’renext door.”
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