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

Russian Nuclear Nexus

Air Date: Week of

The Arctic port city of Murmansk is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. That's because it hosts what may be the world's largest collection of nuclear waste stored in precarious conditions. Much of the waste floats in rusting atomic submarines that can leak into the rivers and sea. As Bill Gasperini reports, the city's residents are too preoccupied with daily survival to press for greater nuclear safeguards.


KNOY: The fate of Russia's environmental whistle-blowers is especially important to the residents of northwestern Russia, in the city of Murmansk north of the Arctic Circle. During the Cold War, Murmansk was home to more than 150 atomic submarines. It was considered a prime target for a Western attack in the event of a nuclear war. Today, some of those vessels are rusting hulks. The region is thought to have the highest concentration of nuclear materials stored in deteriorating conditions anywhere in the world. As Bill Gasperini reports, it may be a nuclear accident waiting to happen.

(A woman speaks into a microphone in Russian)

GASPERINI: Many people around the world wake up listening to the news, traffic, and weather on the radio. Here in Murmansk they get the temperature and the daily radiation count. Today the radiation level is low, only 4 regnans per hour, the level normally found in nature. But that could easily change. For this region far above the Arctic Circle has perhaps more potential for a nuclear accident than anywhere else on the planet.

(Clicking sounds)

GASPERINI: As home to Russia's Northern Fleet, almost 100 nuclear submarines are moored in these icy waters. There's also a nuclear power plant, as well as atomic-powered ice breakers, which can churn their way through thick ice all the way to the North Pole. All of which make Murmansk the hottest place in the Arctic, with multiple sources for radiation contamination. Sergei Fillipov works with Bellona, an environmental organization based in nearby Norway that's helped focus world attention on the problem.

FILLIPOV: We have more than, I guess, 200 nuclear weapons here. And nuclear wastes. It means that of course concentration of the radioactive stuff. We have one of the most concentrated places.

GASPERINI: Bellona has published reports about the nuclear stockpile, including the dumping of nuclear wastes generated by all of those reactors.

(A door slams, footfalls)

GASPERINI: The Russian military has repeatedly used its coastal waters as a disposal ground for unwanted materials. The key whistle-blower on this was a former Naval officer named Alexander Nikitin, who was arrested after helping write a report for Bellona on nuclear security. But Nikitin has always maintained that the information in the report was all in the public domain, as he reiterated in an interview in the city of St. Petersburg.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: We set out to do everything above-board, totally professionally. The report was publically funded by the ecological committee of the European Parliament.

GASPERINI: For 3 years Nikitin has been on a legal treadmill, which included a long stint in prison waiting for formal charges to be filed. This led Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience, the first in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Andrey Zolotkov is a nuclear engineer who also works with Bellona. He says perhaps the greatest danger to Murmansk comes from an old ship now moored in the harbor, which has become a giant receptacle for nuclear waste.

ZOLOTKOV: [Speaks in Russian] TRANSLATOR: This ship has more than 600 spent fuel rods on board that have been pulled from the nuclear ice-breaker Lenin. Now we know that removing this fuel is very dangerous. The ship is very old, and it's docked right here in the Kola Bay. Any accident to the ship could result in horrible damage to the bay and, indeed, the entire city.

GASPERINI: Environmental activists say part of the problem is Russia's secretive military, which refuses to allow outside inspections of facilities in the region. Murmansk has always been one of the most strategic places in Russia, largely because it's an ice-free port due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Norway lies just a short drive away. It's the only NATO-member country which shares a border with Russia. Relations between Moscow and Oslo are relatively good, especially since the end of the Cold War. This winter, tons of food aid have been sent from Norway to Murmansk after the region's governor made a direct appeal for help. Last summer, the devaluation of the ruble and the virtual collapse of Russian banks left millions of people vulnerable. The Murmansk region had already been hit hard with the downsizing of its military industries.

(A woman speaks in Russian)

GASPERINI: Galina Galiyeva is a single mother with 6 hungry children to feed, living in a small, cramped apartment.

GALIYEVA: [Speaks in Russian]

GASPERINI: Making just $15 a month as a cleaner in a hospital, Galina needs all the flour, cooking oil, and other foodstuffs she can get. Given the difficulties of just making ends meet, she says fear of a nuclear accident is far from her mind. With so many people worried about just getting through the winter, life goes on in spite of the ever-present nuclear danger.

(Children playing; rock music plays in the background)

GASPERINI: This central square is always a bundle of activity, even late into the long Polar night. On the surface all appears tranquil. But it's what lies beneath the surface which is so troubling. The danger that deadly radiation could escape from the rusting submarines, or the stockpiles of nuclear waste stored just outside the city. For Living on Earth, I'm Bill Gasperini in Murmansk, Russia.



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