- (Note - We cannot confirm the authenticity of this story
regarding the alleged explosion of a Russian warhead as described below.
However, the mass of data in the story about other Russian 'Chernobyls-in-waiting'
is compelling, accurate, and has been written about by many others. On
that basis, we feel the story is worth a read. If anyone can provide the
url for the story author, we will add it immediately. Until then, caveat
- Efforts to dismantle the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal have
come to a screeching halt - and the mainstream news media hasn't said a
word about the reason why - after a 20-megaton nuclear explosion Nov. 5
that killed 3,000 in Siberia.
- The Asia News Service reported "the 20-megaton warhead
of an SS-18 intercontinental missile accidentally exploded" when technicians
were lowered into the missile silo at a central Siberian site to disarm
the warhead in accordance with the START I treaty. (START II has not been
- News reports have been virtually nonexistent in the western
press, even though accounts did appear briefly, we are told, in the Russian
newspapers. The Russian military has reportedly issued a terse statement
confirming the blast and saying that western officials, including President
Clinton, have been briefed and would be kept abreast of any new developments.
The information TennTimes has been able to obtain is sketchy and very difficult
- Part of the reason is that the START agreement imposes
heavy censorship on both the U.S. and Russian press, a censorship this
reporter found puzzling. "America's free press is anything but free
when it comes to reporting on compliance with the START I arms control
agreement," says Michael R. Boldrick, a retired Air Force colonel
who writes on arms control issues for Reason Online. "Under the terms
of START I, the United States' and the Russian Federation's nuclear republics
are supposed to downsize their still-formidable fleets of strategic nuclear
bombers, ballistic missiles, and missile-firing submarines. But despite
evidence that the Russians are backsliding on the deal, the U.S. government
is holding up its end of the bargain, including a provision that bars independent
investigations of compliance."
- "Other than official announcements, highly sanitized
reports, and carefully worded press releases, there is virtually no information
available to the media on how Russia and the United States are living up
to their START obligations or how they are cooperating with the first cadre
of on-site inspectors. This cold shoulder is by design, not accident: The
treaty itself bars the U.S. government from allowing reporters to conduct
independent investigations or to consult unsanctioned sources in filing
stories about START compliance. It doesn't matter whether journalists want
to visit a missile base in Siberia or South Dakota that's undergoing compliance
inspections: They won't get permission."
- "Think about it," Boldrick wrote. "If
Washington had maintained equally tight controls over a minor burglary
in a posh apartment complex or an Arkansas land-development scheme, Watergate
and Whitewater would not have become household words. With both political
parties deeply committed to arms control, it's unlikely that official Washington
would expose any Russian cheating until well after it became a major threat
to national security." Would they be any more likely to report accidents
such as the one reported in Siberia in November? Had this accident happened
near a major population center, millions could have died and there would
have been no way to cover it up, but it happened in a remote area of Siberia
where a cover-up is far easier.
- The missile, which was allegedly targeted on New York
City, apparently exploded when, according to scant Russian reports, nine
technicians were ordered to disarm the warhead with nothing more than a
hacksaw, claw hammer and ice pick. They were probably trying to pry the
casing off the warhead's detonator when the accident occurred. Initial
fears that the blast would be discovered by the world press when radiation
endangered cities in Russia and Europe were alleviated when prevailing
winds pushed the mushroom cloud north over the Arctic Circle. Boldrick's
first-hand encounter with the East-West censorship policy provides intriguing
insight into domestic press censorship and raising some troubling questions
at the same time.
- "As a freelance writer on strategic nuclear issues,
I only learned by chance about Pentagon and State Department efforts to
muzzle would-be independent arms control reporters. I asked the Arms Control
and Disarmament Agency's press office if I could accompany U.S. inspectors
to Russia to see for myself the final meltdown of the Cold War. My interest
was more than professional: I also wanted to observe the concluding chapter
of the Mutual Assured Destruction era because I once stood on the front
lines of Armageddon as a Minuteman combat crew commander. "ACDA denied
my request. My appeals to the Pentagon and the U.S. On-Site Inspection
Agency produced the same results. Reporters, I was informed, cannot witness
a compliance inspection, observe the destruction of a bomber or missile
silo, or conduct detailed interviews with American or Russian START inspectors.
Other than a photo opportunity or an occasional brief Q&A session when
inspection teams arrive in the United States or Russia, no other contact
is permitted between the working press and the military and diplomatic
officials charged with enforcing START rules.
- "Why? Because the United States--or, more precisely,
the 93 Senators who voted for START I ratification--accepted without debate
restrictive clauses limiting public scrutiny of compliance information.
The origin of the ban is unclear--some government sources told me it was
the work of the Russians, others claimed it was a U.S. initiative--but
there it is, artfully buried in 280 pages of tedious text. "According
to the START I Protocol on Inspections and Continuous Monitoring Activities,
"[T]he Parties shall not allow representatives of the mass media to
accompany inspectors during inspections...." Article VIII, paragraph
six, takes the restrictions a step further, dictating that "[t]he
Parties hold consultations on releasing to the public data and other information...in
fulfilling the obligations provided for in this Treaty."
- This clause gives Russia veto authority over release
of inspection data to the American public. "Beyond press releases
and official statements, the only information available for public review
is an annual report to Congress required under Section 22 of the Arms Control
and Disarmament Act. The current edition, signed by President Clinton,
contains several statements critical of Russian compliance efforts. "The
report, for instance, cryptically states that 'the Soviets refused to allow
U.S. inspectors to take a critical measurement.' After START I was ratified
in 1991, technical exhibitions were hosted by each side for close-up inspections
of the bombers, missiles, and submarines monitored by the treaty. The refusal
was referred to the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission created
by START to arbitrate disputes. Though their rulings are "confidential,"
Russia agreed that the Americans could "measure the item in question
no later than 30 days after the treaty's entry into force." "I
figured that the ACDA, which prepares the annual report, might at least
clarify its own vaguely negative account.
- I asked ACDA spokesman Matthew Murphy three questions
concerning the measurement dispute: What is the "critical measurement"?
Does it apply to a bomber, missile, or submarine? Since the treaty had
been in force for more than 30 days, had Russia kept its word on permitting
the measurement? "Murphy's stock answer to each question was as brief
as it was unhelpful: 'That's classified information.' "Russia also
failed to meet their START obligation of giving advance notification of
a major strategic exercise held in 1993. I asked Murphy if the United States
filed a protest. "His answer was again succinct and unhelpful: 'That's
classified because it would disclose diplomatic relations between countries.'
"From The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I learned that Russia
held another strategic exercise in 1994.
- Last June 22, Moscow military leaders test launched an
SS-25 ICBM, an air-dropped cruise missile, and a submarine-launched ballistic
missile in a mock attack against the United States. I asked ACDA if Russia
had mended its ways and given advanced notice this time. "Murphy's
stonewalling continued: 'Information requested in your question is obtained
from intelligence collection sources so I cannot confirm or deny the exercise
took place.' "So, is Russia living up to its START obligations? A
fair question, especially since the administration's own compliance report
lists several violations and its spokesmen offer virtually no information
on recent deviations.
- More alarming are persistent reports that Russia is dragging
its feet in downsizing strategic forces. While the United States is currently
below the 6,000-warhead ceiling, Russia is believed to have more than 9,000
strategic nuclear weapons available for military operations. Given the
dubious stability of the Yeltsin regime and the continuing unrest throughout
the former Soviet Union, a stockpile that huge is not comforting. "Ongoing
compliance inspections will test Russia's sincerity in living up to treaty
obligations. But forget about getting anything close to nonpartisan verification.
Only Pentagon yes-men, State Department hacks, self-interested ACDA spokesmen,
and politicians enamored of a bipartisan fixation for arms control know
for sure--and they're not talking. "Government officials in Washington
and Moscow retain a monopoly in reporting START compliance. "Investigative
reporters have effectively been disarmed by the arms control process. The
free speech standards for the START process are those of a former police
state, rather than those of an open society."
- Other Russian nuclear submarines in Murmansk are also
bombs waiting to go off. "The situation has become far more dangerous
as a result of the economic crisis," adds Nils Bohmer, a nuclear physics
research scientist with Bellona, a Norwegian organization specializing
in nuclear questions, which has an office in Murmansk. "The Russians
have more to think about than the nuclear pollution all around them. Their
main concern is where their next meal is coming from. If you are in charge
of a laid-up nuclear submarine and you are now into the fifth month of
not being paid, your mind is not on the job. To make the current crisis
worse there has been a bad potato harvest in the rest of Russia. Potatoes
are now better guarded than nuclear materials." Dangerous sites lie
close to dwellings.
- From the foot of a giant concrete statue of a Soviet
soldier that commemorates the defeat of Germany in the Second World War
you can look down on one such hazard. An ageing Hotel-class submarine at
a quayside in Murmansk fjord is so dangerous that no one dare move it for
fear of causing a nuclear explosion. The submarine is only 300 meters from
a block of flats. The population of Murmansk is 370,000. Further down the
fjord is the Lepse, a retired service ship on which 640 spent nuclear fuel
assemblies are stored. Workers used sledgehammers to force fuel assemblies
into containers they did not fit, damaging most. The entire area is radioactive.
If the Lepse were to capsize there could be an explosion that releases
half the lethal radioactivity recorded after the Chernobyl disaster.
- A "Chernobyl in slow motion", according to
Bohmer, is taking place at Andreeva Bay, a desolate spot only 40km from
the Norwegian border. Here 21,000 spent fuel assemblies, enough for 90
nuclear reactors, and 12,000 cubic meters of solid and liquid radioactive
waste are stored in concrete bunkers. "The concrete is very poor,"
said Bohmer. "Every autumn they used to fill the cracks to stop rain
water entering. But this year they have no money. From October snow will
get in, turn to ice and expand. The danger is that there will be leakages
into the sea where fish are caught that are sold within the European Union."
Many of the submarines have been withdrawn from service under the Start
International disarmament treaties.
- In accordance with Start, the submarines are cut in two,
the missile compartments removed and the two halves welded loosely together.
Air is pumped in to keep the submarines afloat, but tell-tale bubbles rising
to the surface around them show that many are leaking. In addition to the
submarines themselves, nuclear rubbish is stored at 11 sites in the Kola
peninsula. This includes at least four SS-21 missiles, 20 medium and short-range
nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads.
- Crews stationed on laid-up submarines are often unfit,
untrained or incompetent. Security is lax. "A terrorist could use
nuclear fuel to make a dirty bomb by mixing it with Semtex," said
Thomas Nilsen, a Bellona researcher. "If you mixed two kilograms of
strontium-90 with Semtex and exploded it in London most of the city would
have to be evacuated for two to three years."
- The despair in the Russian submarine fleet has produced
a disturbing increase in incidents. On 11 September a sailor went berserk
on a modern Akula-class nuclear submarine and killed eight people before
shooting himself. Six days earlier three people were taken hostage at a
nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlja in the Arctic. Two weeks ago two people
were killed in an incident on board a Russian submarine in the Black Sea
and an interior guard at Russia's nuclear reprocessing plant at Mayak in
Siberia killed three colleagues.
- But the utter lack of confidence in safety standards
was revealed last May when there was an explosion on board a submarine
loaded with 16 nuclear warheads in the Barents Sea after water leaked into
the missile compartment. As the submarine limped towards Severomorsk, near
Murmansk, the headquarters of the northern fleet, wild rumors spread. The
city fathers fled to the hills. Kindergartens were evacuated. Police started
taking iodine pills. Norwegian intelligence noted that after the incident
no Russian missile submarines put to sea for three months. Norway and the
United States have signed agreements with Russia to help clean up the nuclear
mess. Norway has set aside $50 million to build a waste processing plant
and the European Commission has also provided funding. But the total cost
of cleaning the Kola peninsula is $1.5 billion, according to Nikolay Yegerov,
Russia's deputy atomic energy minister. So far only 16 submarines have
been dismantled, none to international safety standards.
- The West's efforts are further hampered by the refusal
to allow outside experts onto submarine bases. The fleet still has 67 operational
nuclear submarines and clings to the vestiges of its former formidable
reputation. As an immediate priority this winter Norway has offered to
pay for plastic coverings at Andreeva Bay to prevent radioactive leakage
into the sea. But the project is deadlocked. Despite many promises, not
a single foreigner has been allowed on to the site; a videotape was considered
- Corruption is so widespread in Russia that Norway insists
that wherever funds are provided its experts must verify that they are
being spent as promised. The Russians also insist on levying a 50 percent
tax on all equipment to be used to clean up the peninsula. Though a civilian
nuclear power plant in Kola, considered as dangerous as Chernobyl, has
finally been made safer with western help, a new generator was held on
the border for two years because the Russians tried to charge tax on it.
- As long ago as 1995 it was agreed that two western companies,
SGN of France and British Nuclear Fuels, would carry out a study to determine
how to remove the spent nuclear fuel from the Lepse using robots. But the
project has gone no further. No matter how bad the winter - and expectations
are that it will be grim - no one is expecting that large numbers of Russians
will try to flee to Norway. The Russians have a seemingly limitless capacity
to absorb suffering. In any case, the Russian border police have tight
control over the short frontier with Norway.
- But a nuclear accident would be a different matter, says
Ommund Hegghelm, the state secretary at the Norwegian defense ministry.
"Russians are incredibly loyal to their country. The only thing that
could produce a refugee problem would be a nuclear catastrophe. When things
happen in the nuclear field the margin between catastrophe and pure luck
is very small." If foreign reports are to be believed, that luck ran
out November 5.
- Ian Mather in Murmansk, Asian News Service Col. Michael
R. Boldrick (USAF, ret.)
- Information about other Siberian nuclear accident sites:
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