Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 137

The Soviet navy began dumping large amounts of liquid nuclear wastes into the oceans in the 1950s, and disposal by this method by the Pacific Fleet in the Sea of Japan reportedly reached its peak in the mid-1980s. The practice attracted major international attention in 1993. In October of that year the Russian navy dumped some 900 tons of low-level liquid nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan, approximately 300 miles west of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido. The dumping operation was a major embarrassment to President Boris Yeltsin, coming as it did just as Yeltsin was completing a goodwill visit to Tokyo. The Russian leader, who was trying to rebuild his international reputation following the bloody clash between government and opposition forces at the Russian parliament building, had just assured then Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa that the ocean-dumping would be discontinued (New York Times, October 19, 1993).

The brazenness of the navy’s dumping operation in 1993 appeared to be expressly aimed both at insulting Tokyo and at wiping out the good effects of Yeltsin’s visit. (It was not to be the last time that Russian military leaders would act in a fashion seemingly designed to undercut a foreign initiative launched by Yeltsin). The dumping scandal also began a diplomatic tug-of-war which saw the Russian navy continue to threaten to dump additional nuclear wastes at sea if Japan did not cough up financial assistance for the construction of a nuclear waste processing plant. Russian officials explained that, absent foreign aid, the dumping would continue because the fleet’s aging storage facilities were filled to capacity and they feared an accidental emission on land. Ultimately, a Russian-Japanese commission was set up to seek a solution to the problem.

And the problem was not a minor one. According to a 1998 report, the Pacific Fleet at that time had some 8,400 spent fuel assemblies in storage at coastal bases and on board ships, but no long-term storage facility. Spent nuclear fuel was stored in waste dumps at two sites in the far east–one on Kamchatka and the other at Cape Maidelya, near Vladivostok–while additional waste was held on board a small fleet of service ships. In addition, some fifty-seven obsolete submarines with fuel were moored at various sites along the Pacific coast pending decommissioning. It was expected to take up to ten years to ship waste nuclear fuel from the Pacific Fleet’s coastal bases to a reprocessing facility in the Urals (IPS, June 26, 1998).

The environmental dangers posed by the Pacific Fleet’s nuclear waste storage problems–like those of the larger Northern Fleet–are a threat to Russian inhabitants in the region and to neighboring countries. The Russian navy and security forces, however, appear more interested in hiding the problem than in solving it. Their attempts to imprison or to intimidate investigators such as Pasko and Soifer–or Aleksandr Nikitin, who has studied the Northern Fleet’s nuclear waste problems–only compounds the potential environmental dangers. Equally important, such actions by the authorities raise new questions about Moscow’s commitment to human rights. They also reinforce the impression abroad that the Russian armed forces and security apparatus continue to be run by bureaucrats who, Soviet-style, use alleged national security concerns as a pretext to hinder the solving of Soviet-era problems.