Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Environmental Challenges in the NIS: Recommendations for the New U.S. Administration

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Environmental Challenges in the NIS: Recommendations for the New U.S. Administration

Article excerpt

The Soviet Union left a legacy of some of the most severe environmental disasters found on our planet--disasters that in many cases have only worsened over the ten years since the USSR fell apart. Today, from Chernobyl to Chelyabinsk, the states of the former USSR are home to a litany of environmental "worsts": The southern Urals region, including Russia's Mayak complex, has the world's worst concentration of radioactive pollution and the largest concentration of nuclear reactors (including decommissioned reactors). Russia's Norilsk complex is reportedly the largest stationary source of air pollution in the world. The Caucasus region of southern Russia is the site of the only new desert formation occurring in all of Europe. Russia's Lake Karachai is reportedly the most polluted spot on earth. As these problems intensify, they may well create the worst set of challenges to confront the health and well-being of populations in countries well beyond Russia's own borders.

Against this background, this article is meant only to reflect some general thoughts regarding the extent of environmental damage in the former USSR; the economic, social, and political impacts; obstacles and constraints in the ability of the newly independent states (NIS) to address them; and their implications for U.S. policy. Although there is certainly variation among the newly independent states, the article offers only a broad overview of key issues--in the hope of stimulating some new thinking and new approaches about U.S. involvement in the area--especially at a time when some NIS leadership has begun to show signs of moving ever farther away from addressing these issues responsibly and effectively.

Environmental Challenges

Many Americans seem to associate environmental challenges in the former Soviet Union with a series of high-profile disasters: the accident at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant; the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia; the legacy of the Soviet nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons complex; contamination of the Caspian Sea that threatens the global caviar trade. Although those disasters may no longer make the front pages of Western newspapers, they indeed have had major consequences and may be getting worse with time.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, for example, in some ways may be a greater threat today than earlier in the decade, as the massive concrete and metal sarcophagus around Chernobyl's fourth reactor--built rapidly as a temporary measure to seal off radiation from the destroyed reactor--has begun to crack. There is now reportedly a serious danger that the rain and moisture seeping inside will begin to mix with the radioactive material on the reactor floor, leach into the groundwater, and migrate into the Dnieper River--the main waterway of Ukraine and the source of drinking water for about two-thirds of its population. That only compounds the continuing dangers of the radioactive material inside the sarcophagus, which will remain hazardous for decades to come, and the large quantities of radioactive wastes and contaminated equipment currently stored in hundreds of sites around the reactor.

Widespread radiation contamination also continues to threaten other parts of the NIS and beyond, mainly from the legacy of nuclear weapons production and testing and serious problems in nuclear waste disposal. After forty years of nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk, in Kazakstan--where between 1949 and 1989 about 470 nuclear devices were tested, about one-fourth of them above ground--tens of thousands of square miles are reportedly contaminated by dangerous levels of cesium-137 and other radioactive materials. Specialists expect a serious radiation problem in the lower Volga region, where radioactive materials from more than twenty underground explosions remain in the soil and threaten to mix with groundwater and further contaminate the Volga River and the Caspian Sea. And radiation pollution in Krasnoyarsk-26, Tomsk 7, and Mayak--the three sites where plutonium was used in nuclear weapons production in the Soviet Union--not only remains high but threatens to intensify. …

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