Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 102

As welcome as the Norwegian offer to provide some US$30 million towards cleaning up the nuclear waste from Russian Northern Fleet nuclear submarines might be, it does not begin to address the problem. What Boris Yeltsin might mean when he suggested the Kola Peninsula and Barents Sea might be declared a “security zone” is open to interpretation. What is certain is that the region will continue to be the home of some of Russia’s most important nuclear bases. This function is likely to increase rather than decrease in the future. All the Russian Navy’s most modern strategic submarines are based there and several times there have been hints that the Navy would eventually consolidate all its ballistic-missile submarines in the Northern Fleet. While Navy commander in chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov yesterday specifically denied a news report that the aging Delta I and III strategic submarines of the Pacific Fleet were being moved from Kamchatka to the Kola Peninsula, most analysts think that it is only a matter of time before they are transferred or scrapped.

Yeltsin’s suggestion that Russia can remove the “old submarines” from the Barents region if only Norway were to provide the money is a misleading simplification. Dangerous nuclear waste from the Soviet Navy’s once vast nuclear submarine fleet has been pilling up at several North Fleet bases for more than three decades. More than ninety nuclear-powered submarines have been decommissioned in recent years. Two-thirds of these are rusting alongside piers with their reactors full of nuclear fuel. Removing this fuel does little to alleviate the environmental problem, as the fuel-rods and radioactive waste are merely shunted ashore to dilapidated and already overloaded storage facilities.

Some modest progress has been made in reprocessing some of the liquid radioactive waste and the new Norwegian funds will help this effort. However, the Herculean task of dealing with the solid waste–such as the fuel assemblies and the reactors themselves–has hardly been scratched. This effort will take billions rather than millions of dollars. The United States has said it would contribute US$500,000 toward a US$1.5 million stop-gap effort to build special fuel storage casks to hold the spent fuel rods that have been stored for decades aboard two old ships in Murmansk harbor. The plan would allow the Russians to at least remove the fuel rods from these ships before they sink, storing them ashore for up to twenty-five years while they await processing. These two ships are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Housed at the Navy’s storage facility in Andreeva Bay–only forty-five kilometers from the Norwegian border–are more than 21,000 spent fuel elements. The Atomic Energy Ministry recently indicated that it rather than the Navy would be responsible for eliminating this waste. In an initial study, the ministry suggested that much of it might eventually be stored on the arctic island of Novaya Zemlya–once a nuclear test site. As this and other equally expensive disposal plans remain on the drawing boards, more waste is piling up. (Russian media, May 26, 27)