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

Cataloging the Contamination

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Mr. X. of Greenpeace, the first organization to report on the dumping of reactors from several Soviet Navy ships in the Kara Sea off Siberia. X says the nuclear contamination is a result of accidents, purposeful dumping and "peaceful" nuclear explosions for such things as mining operations.


CURWOOD: Long before the Senate hearings in Alaska this month, journalists and environmental activists were coming back from Russia with reports of massive radioactive contamination. Greenpeace, for example, last February was the first to report that a dozen Soviet submarine reactors, and those from three nuclear-powered icebreakers, had been dumped in the Kara Sea.

Daniel (sic ) Handler is the head of Greenpeace’s Nuclear-Free Seas campaign. He’s visited some of the most dangerously contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union, and he testified before Senator Murkowski’s committee in Fairbanks. Speaking with us from Anchorage, Alaska, he says the former Soviet Union countryside became contaminated by a range of military nuclear activities.

HANDLER: One is the weapons production, which is mainly centered in the center of Russia. Here, highly enriched uranium and plutonium was produced and separated, and millions of curies of radiation were dumped into open pits, into rivers and storage tanks. One of these storage tanks in Chelyabinsk exploded in 1957, releasing hundreds of thousands of curies of radiation and contaminating tens of thousands of square kilometers of area. Now, another major source of contamination, nuclear contamination in Russia comes from the weapons testing program. There again you’ve had extensive contamination from the nuclear tests above the atmosphere as well as underground tests they’ve vented. In addition to these military tests, they’ve had roughly a hundred and twenty or so of what are called “peaceful” nuclear explosions, for the purposes of mining, increasing gas production, construction, and any number of these sites are contaminated as well. Then you also now have another problem, with what we could call the naval nuclear propulsion program. Since the first submarine went to sea in the late 1950’s, there’s been a number of extensive accidents or serious accidents on these submarines, and contamination from disposal of their nuclear waste.

CURWOOD: How does this affect people health-wise? Is there any way to measure this?

HANDLER: Well, they’re two separate questions, actually. Forty percent of the country, as the former head of the environmental ministry told us, is ecologically contaminated, as he put it, environmentally contaminated, and twenty percent of the area borders on the ecological disaster zone. So separating out the effects of radiation from the effects of industrial pollutants both in the air and the water and the soil, as well as poor nutrition, could get very difficult. In the reports at the hearings, they had their representative from Siberian Medical Institute who said they’d seen a doubling of the cancer rates over the last twenty years.

CURWOOD: What do you think the effect has been on the fisheries?

HANDLER: That’s the one bit of reassuring news we have at the moment, that nobody has detected a high level of radiation in the fish caught in the Barents Sea or in the Bering Sea over the last twenty or thirty years, or at least nothing that is not explained by the primary source of radiation in the Arctic at the moment, which is from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. But always we have this outstanding collection for the future.

CURWOOD: What’s being done now? I gather the Russians need money to address this -- is that the proper approach, do you think?

HANDLER: Clearly capital has to be provided in some shape or form. The Russians don’t have the money to do it themselves. In the case of the dumping of radioactive materials in the Arctic, I think we need to determine as quickly as possible the material shape of the radioactive materials that have been dumped, and then if they’re in reasonably good shape, the best thing to do is to raise them and put them in a monitorable, retrievable storage system on land. If they look to be in poor material shape, to the point that if you tried to raise them you’d crack them open and have a catastrophic release of radiation, then what we need to do is probably look at (?) them in some way. In the case of the situation in the interior of the Soviet Union, at the weapons complexes, we’re looking at a massive clean-up job, just like we have here in the United States. It’s been variously estimated that it’ll cost 150 to 300 billion to clean up our nuclear weapons complex. One can only assume the Russian situation is a little bit worse than what we have here, and will cost a bit more.

CURWOOD: Why is the CIA talking about this now? They must have know about this for years; I mean, that was their business, keeping track of what the Soviet Union was doing. Why we hearing about it today?

HANDLER: Well, one, I think it’s partially by urging of Senator Frank Murkowski, since he invited the CIA up to this special intelligence hearing to talk about it. But also the CIA’s kinda getting on the green bandwagon; we’re suddenly finding all sorts of federal agencies over the years who had very different missions suddenly are environmentalists. But what I found very interesting about it is we finally have the first high government official from the Executive Branch that’s confirmed most of the reports that environmental groups have been making over the last couple of years about radioactive pollution in Russia, obviously implying that maybe this government can do something about it.

CURWOOD: What do you think the United States should do about it

HANDLER: Stop our submarine operations in the Arctic. Stop nuclear testing. Arrange for some loan arrangements so the Russians can have capital to properly decommission their nuclear-powered submarines, and make sure that US aid goes to energy-efficiency matters rather than building more nuclear power plants in the Far East or Russia or elsewhere.

CURWOOD: And why stop operating our subs and stop testing?

HANDLER: Because the Russians, they still think they’re a superpower. They still think they’re a major power. They’re not going to stop their submarine operations until we stop ours. We don’t need to operate in the Arctic, the Cold War’s over. We cannot risk a naval Chernobyl at sea in the Arctic or elsewhere.

CURWOOD: Thank you. Josh Handler is research director for Greenpeace’s Nuclear-Free Seas program. He spoke to us from Anchorage, Alaska. Thank you, sir.

HANDLER: Thank you, Steve.



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