A day after holding talks in Moscow with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen traveled to the White Sea in Northern Russia on September 14 to observe Russian nuclear subs being dismantled as part of a U.S. aid program. Cohen flew from Moscow to the city of Severodvinsk, where he visited both the Zvezdochka (little star) State Machine Building Enterprise and the Northern Machine-Building Plant. The Zvezdochka facility is reported to be the world’s largest shipyard and has thus far dismantled twelve of Russia’s older Delta Class submarines. The Northern Machine-Building Plant is Russia’s largest ship-building facility and is currently preparing to begin dismantling six retired Typhoon Class nuclear submarines. As many as ninety Russian nuclear submarines are expected to be dismantled in Severodvinsk over the next few years, the director of the Zvezdochka plant told reporters.
Forty-six of those subs are scheduled to be dismantled under the auspices of the Russian-U.S. “cooperative threat reduction program”–nicknamed the Nunn-Lugar program after the two U.S. senators who founded it. Cohen said that Washington has already contributed US$1.7 billion to help Russia destroy nuclear weapons under the Nunn-Lugar program, and that it would allocate another US$2.7 billion over the next six to seven years to further reduce Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He urged the U.S. Congress to continue financial support for the Russian sub dismantling effort (UPI, Reuters, Itar-Tass, September 14).
The United States is not the only country contributing funds to aid Russia’s Northern Fleet deal with retired nuclear submarines. On September 10 the city of Severodvinsk announced the reopening of a nuclear waste dump–also located at the Zvezdochka shipyard. The facility, built originally in the 1960’s, has been modernized by Norway’s Kvaerner Maritime company using some US$4.2 million contributed by the Norwegian government. According to a top official of the Norwegian company, the dump will now be able to accommodate enough liquid nuclear waste to permit the Northern Fleet to scrap six submarines per year. The same official also said that U.S. and Norwegian companies are now assembling equipment for recycling fluid waste into solid matter, which is safer for dumping and recycling. That project too is being financed by the U.S. Defense Department, he said (AP, Itar-Tass, September 10).
Russia’s handling–mishandling might be a better description–of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear legacy has been a source of tension between Moscow and Oslo. The differences between the two countries on this score have been reflected in the controversial case of retired Russian navy Captain Aleksandr Nikitin. He has fought long and hard against treason charges brought against him for his work on a study published by the Norwegian environmental group Bellona which described the environmental dangers posed by the Northern Fleet’s nuclear waste problems. Nikitin’s still unresolved case has been taken up by human rights groups around the world, and is seen by many as a test of whether post-Soviet Russia’s security and military establishments will be allowed–as was the case during the Soviet period–to run roughshod over the rights of individuals.
While Cohen praised the results of Russian-U.S. nuclear cooperation in Severodvinsk, it was less clear whether that visit and his talks on September 13 in Moscow had accomplished their main purpose: to restart cooperation between the Russian and U.S. militaries which had been frozen by Moscow during the Kosovo conflict. Cohen did appear to make clear during remarks in Severodvinsk that the United States should not expect any quick ratification by the Russian parliament of the START II treaty. He suggested that Russian Defense Ministry officials had told him that lawmakers were unlikely to approve the treaty before parliamentary elections set for December.
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