Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

Radioactive Waste and Russia's Northern Fleet: Sinking the Principles of International Environmental Law

Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

Radioactive Waste and Russia's Northern Fleet: Sinking the Principles of International Environmental Law

Article excerpt

Communication with the Russian military on the Kola Peninsula is poor. We can understand their situation, but the problems of nuclear waste there are so great that they have to be solved. A catastrophe in the North would affect the whole of Europe.

Jorgen Kosmo, Norwegian Defense Minister(1)


In 1959 the first Soviet nuclear submarine, the Leninski Komsomol (K-3), entered into service and since that time the former Soviet Union (FSU) has launched a total of 248 nuclear powered submarines.(2) The majority of these vessels have served with Russia's Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk in the Barents Sea region.(3) At the height of the Cold War the Barents region was home to the highest concentration of nuclear weapons and nuclear powered submarines in the world, due, in part, to the fact that the region contained the only ice free ports on the Russian Arctic.(4)

The Soviets, like their NATO counterparts, began their nuclear building program with little thought to how the nuclear vessels would be decommissioned without creating serious environmental damage.(5) As these submarines have reached the end of their natural service lives, they have become environmental hazards.(6) The spent fuel from the submarines, and the reactor compartments themselves, pose serious health and environmental risks.(7) Since the end of the cold war, a combination of factors, including financial restraint, maintenance problems and arms control, have accelerated the rate of decommissioning, thereby aggravating the problem.(8) At present, the Northern Fleet's interim storage facilities are exhausted and much of the waste is being stored in an unsafe manner.(9) Though immediate damage from Russian activities may not be obvious, exposure to even low levels of radiation may have grave consequences for the health and well being of people in neighboring states.(10)

International, regional and bilateral initiatives have been created in response to the nuclear waste problems generated by the Russian Navy.(11) Many of these have provided funds for studies and initial aid towards solving the problems of waste disposal.(12) The Rovanniemi Declaration on the Protection of the Environment(13), signed by the eight Arctic nations,(14) cited the importance of international co-operation and financial support in the "rehabilitation of areas that have been polluted as a result of the operation of nuclear facilities."(15) Similarly, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council in the Kirkenes Declaration recognized it as a serious problem that requires international co-operation.(16) Despite this push towards international co-operation and aid for dealing with its spent fuel problem, the Russian Navy has continued to operate nuclear powered submarines and is presently engaged in building and launching new vessels that rely on nuclear propulsion.(17)

This paper argues that the international community is undermining principles of international environmental law, such as state responsibility and co-operation. Russia has not been admonished for its violation of existing treaD law, such as the London Convention,(18) and has instead become the beneficiary of international aid.(19) By reconstructing the problem as regional, Russia has avoided the issue of state responsibility. It has further ignored the precautionary approach and has launched new submarines as well as proposing the creation of floating nuclear plants for the Arctic communities based on naval reactor designs.(20) Regional co-operation has become nothing more than a military subsidy in that it allows the Russian Navy to avoid diverting portions of its operational budget into nuclear waste disposal and treatment.

Before analyzing this problem from the principles of state responsibility and co-operation, it is first necessary to outline the scope and magnitude of the nuclear waste problem.


Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Former Soviet Union (FSU) engaged in an extensive submarine building program, culminating in the construction of 248 submarines. …

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