Coverup? Russian Nuke
Warhead Said To Have
Exploded Killing Thousands
By Jim Moore - TennTimes Editor & Publisher
(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 emptor.)
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 ratified).
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 to verify.
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 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 inadequate.
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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