Decommissioning Russia's Obsolete Nuclear Submarines

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Decommissioning Russia's Obsolete Nuclear Submarines

Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review

RUSSIA has at last reached a multi-billion dollar agreement with the West to make safe more than a hundred obsolete nuclear submarines of its Northern Fleet rotting abandoned in the Arctic Sea in easy access to terrorists. (See article on the terrorist threat in last month's issue of Contemporary Review.)

A very ambitious and broad project called Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation will also address the safety of all of the country's atomic reactors, including the civilian ones, and the accumulated national nuclear waste stock. A separate agreement calls for winding up the Russian plutonium programme. These agreements, rewarding some four years of protracted negotiations, were reached in principle at a Vienna conference on terrorism in March, co-hosted jointly by Russia and the United States under the auspices of the United Nations. A formal announcement is expected soon.

The pragmatic Russians are keen to emphasize that they are not prepared to allow their fury about the American-led invasion of Iraq to obscure their perception of their national interest.

Investment in these nuclear safety programmes will be financed from a $2Obn anti-terrorism fund established last year by the G8 industrialized nations. It may well go some way towards meeting Russia's anticipated losses that may be incurred through its $8bn worth of arms exports which supported the Saddam regime over many years. And the major, new, high-tech ocean and nuclear decommissioning industries that must be built to carry out these programmes will more than compensate Russia for its lucrative hydrocarbon concessions in Iraq which a post-Saddam regime may not choose to honour.

The Vienna conference was called to co-ordinate global efforts to deprive terrorists of radioactive materials that could be deployed in crude 'dirty bombs' against vulnerable population centres to devastating effect.

Spencer Abraham, the American Energy Secretary, told the conference: 'the threat requires a determined and comprehensive international response'. Alexander Rumyantsev, the Russian Minister of Atomic Energy (Minatom), added: 'we are just at the beginning of an era of fruitful international co-operation'.

However, Mohamed EI Baradei, director general of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), described a new era of fear: 'Given the apparent readiness of terrorists to disregard their own safety', he reasoned, 'the personal danger generated by handling powerful radioactive sources can no longer be regarded as an effective deterrent. In view of recent reports about terrorist plans to build and deploy radiological dispersion devices, and given the inadequacy of the control of radiation sources, the world urgently needs new security measures'.

The personal contact between Abraham and Rumyantsev at the conference enabled them to clinch an immediate agreement on ending the Russian plutonium programme. They also edged towards accord on the nuclear submarines, the other reactors and the wastes. The entire arrangement has now been completed in Moscow.

Russia has formally agreed to phase out its three remaining plutonium plants over the next eight years. The United States, which halted its own plutonium production in 1990, agreed to provide part-finance for the construction of alternative fossil fuel plants to replace the energy yield. The money will be raised from a $1.3bn budget committed by Washington to various nuclear non-proliferation programmes during the financial year 2004.

Rumyantsev's specialists conservatively estimate the cost of decommissioning the obsolete submarines of the Northern Fleet at some $3.9bn over eight years. The accord involves the European Union (EU) as a whole and several of Russia's neighbours as well as the G8. The London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will play a key role in financing the scheme.

Ironically, the final and most difficult issues solved in the negotiations concerned the responsibility of the donor nations in case of any nuclear accidents occurring during the projects, and whether Russia should be entitled to levy any customs charges or taxes on donations. …

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