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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Soviet Nuclear Contamination Confirmed

Air Date: Week of

John McWhorter of Alaska Public Radio Network reports on testimony at a special Senate hearing in Fairbanks, Alaska. CIA director Robert Gates confirmed at the hearing that wide stretches of the former Soviet Union were contaminated by radioactive waste from Soviet nuclear weapons programs. It’s feared that radioactivity from some of the sites in the Arctic could find threaten parts of Alaska and Canada.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The most polluted place on Earth. That’s what some American scientists and Russian officials are calling a Siberian province that the Soviet military apparently sacrificed to radioactive waste during the nuclear arms race. The shocking extent of nuclear contamination in Chelyabinsk, near the Ural Mountains, and in the waters and islands of the Arctic Ocean was recently confirmed by CIA chief Robert Gates during special Senate hearings in Alaska. From Fairbanks, John McWhorter of Alaska Public Radio has our story.

McWHORTER: With the recent demise of the Soviet Union, rumors have been surfacing about severe pollution caused by Russian military activities. More recently, the Russians are admitting that they were so careless, they poisoned vast ecosystems with radioactive elements like cesium, strontium and plutonium that now threaten the entire Arctic. Speaking recently at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing in Fairbanks, CIA Director Robert Gates for the first time confirmed reports of environmental “dead zones.”

GATES: The former Soviet Union’s attitude towards safety and handling of radioactive waste materials was, to say the least, lackadaisical from the very beginning of its nuclear program. Radioactive waste resulting from the extraction of plutonium for the USSR’s first nuclear weapons at Chelyabinsk-65 were discharged directly into the Techav River, resulting in severe contamination of the watershed for thousands of kilometers downstream. (fade under )

McWHORTER: Gates ticked off several sites that were polluted by dumping that continued into the 1980’s. Some of the most potentially dangerous lay in the biologically-rich waters of the Berents Sea, near Norway, around an island called Novaya Zemlaya.

GATES: The USSR dumped substantial quantities of radioactive waste in Arctic waters, including the three damaged original nuclear reactors of the icebreaker Lenin, and reportedly reactors from several submarines, including some with nuclear fuel aboard. (fade under)

McWHORTER: Scientists testifying at the hearing now worry those reactors may be leaking, and they called for monitoring programs to assess the risk. At the same time, other scientists worry the cash-strapped Russians may be falling behind on maintaining several Chernobyl-style reactors that they still use to power the nation. While all this may sound like it’s half a world away, researchers warn that other Arctic nations, including the United States and Canada, are at risk. Stephanie Pfirman, an oceanographer with the Environmental Defense Fund, presented a map showing that in winter the Arctic atmosphere is a closed system that reaches across Russia and links it with North America.

PFIRMAN: Any pollutants that are put into this air mass during the winter time have the possibility of being transported throughout the entire Arctic, so we are linked whether we like it or not. What you see here in this hook shape is a pulse of highly polluted air that was released from Europe and was transported across the Arctic within five days. This gives you an indicated of just how closely we’re linked to Siberia and Eastern Europe.

MCWHORTER: Pfirman noted that, in addition to an atmospheric threat, radioactive waste can also be carried on deep oceanic currents. Although she cautioned that not enough is known, there is a risk to the Bering Sea and other fisheries that provide much of the seafood eaten in the United States. The hearings were held in Fairbanks at the behest of Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee. Murkowski has been pushing for an international monitoring program to determine the extent of Russian nuclear pollution. That has been included in a three and a half billion dollar Russian aid package that was passed by the Senate and awaits action in the House. But some scientists testified that the cost of the cleanup could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. For Living on Earth, I’m John McWhorter in Fairbanks, Alaska.



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