Magazine article Insight on the News

Russian Armada Poisons the Seas

Magazine article Insight on the News

Russian Armada Poisons the Seas

Article excerpt

Junked Russian nuclear warships are leaching radioactive waste and spent fuel into the North Pacific fishing region, The Russians now want U,S, money to clean up their mess.

Lurking in the frigid waters on the barren and sparsely populated North Pacific coast of the former Soviet Union lay half of the rotting and rusting hulks of a once-powerful and feared Russian armada, including submarines that ran silent and deep with arsenals for nuclear Armageddon.

Despite the fall of the Evil Empire, the threat from these vessels of atomic death, combined with those rusting and leaking poisons in the Kola region, continues. Instead of instant annihilation, however, the new danger involves contamination of one of the most lucrative fishing regions of the world and, hence, food supplies for millions of people spanning the hemisphere from Japan to Alaska and along the coasts of Washington state and Oregon.

"The concern here is whether the radiation fallout could travel into the Alaskan fishing current" says William L. Bell, vice president of the prestigious Center for Naval Analysis, or CNA, in Alexandria, Va., which has been seeking analysis by concerned intelligence agencies worried that even a single mishap could impact food supplies worldwide.

In fact, a monthlong special investigation by Insight has uncovered not only unreported dangers associated with the decaying Russian Pacific and Northern fleets, but also new political threats from Moscow involving demands for millions of dollars in aid to help clean up this nuclear waste or else Russia's new masters simply will walk away from one of the most serious environmental hazards ever seen.

Nuclear blackmail is not too strong a term. Russia desperately needs cash, and unless the United States delivers $160 million to build infrastructure to transport spent fuel from Northern and Pacific nuclear-submarine fleets, its leaders say they will violate every nuclear-disarmament treaty. The money would not include additional funds needed for environmental monitors, physical security or control.

Nina Yanovskaya, who is in charge of this graveyard project for Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry in Moscow issued the threat recently at a high-level private seminar on nuclear waste held at CNA and attended by Insight. Cash-poor Russia can't afford to build the hundreds of sophisticated containers and technical equipment needed to store and move nuclear fuel that threatens both the northern and eastern Russian peninsulas, she says.

In the past the United States characterized this as a regional problem, but new concern about ocean currents and wind direction as a result of the La Nina and El Nino phenomena has caught the eye of researchers wondering about the safety of Alaskan fishing waters. Most say Alaska is safe today but will give no guarantees for the future.

"The biggest threat to Alaska is if you have another Chernobyl because the air patterns in the spring are a direct shot to Alaska" says David Garman, chief of staff for Sen. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who has kept an eye on the nuclear-submarine crisis. Westerners also are worried about the Kola Nuclear Power Plant near Murmansk, which safety experts liken to a car running on four flat tires because it has two 26-year-old pressurized water reactors, Garman says.

Alaska missed the fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, but it may not be so lucky the next time. The combined radioactive level for both of the decaying fleets is 75 million curies, which translates into about 1.5 times the radioactivity released in the Chernobyl accident. One-third of this radioactivity is in the Far East.

Since 1990 the problems with the junked Northern Fleet, near the Kola Peninsula, have been well documented. About 150 decommissioned submarines are in the region. Of those, 104 still have their nuclear fuel on board and, though reactor sections from another 33 have been cut out, the reactors remain afloat. …

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