Ecological Disaster Looms
As Soviet Nuclear Subs Rust Away
By David Hoffman
Washington Post Service
MURMANSK, Russia -- Every few months, a green four-car train crawls along Kola Bay, past the lumbering cranes of the commercial port, and stops at a dock north of here in a district known as Rosta.
The special train is at the center of a logistical and financial bottleneck that is making this region one of the most dangerous nuclear dumping grounds in the world. The Arctic seascape here has become a graveyard for the once-feared fleet of Soviet nuclear-powered submarines. Highly radioactive spent fuel from their nuclear reactors has been piling up in storage tanks and open-air bins, on military bases and in shipyards. In some cases, fuel assemblies have broken and tanks have leaked.
The train is the only way to move the spent fuel more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) to Russia's sole reprocessing plant, the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Ural Mountains, where uranium and plutonium are separated out for possible reuse. When fully loaded, the train can carry 588 fuel assemblies - slightly more than the contents of one submarine.
But there are more than 50,000 such fuel assemblies awaiting transport. Thus, at the present pace, it will take decades to remove the mountain of spent nuclear fuel that has accumulated on the Kola Peninsula. More than 100 decommissioned submarines, reactors intact, are floating into rusty oblivion in nearby fjords and bays because Russia cannot afford to off-load their spent fuel and cut them up.
''We can't cope with this problem until we become a rich country,'' said Andrei Zolotkov, a chemical engineer who works with Russia's fleet of civilian atomic icebreakers and who played a key role in exposing Russia's dumping of old naval reactors in the oceans in the early 1990s. ''In the near future we are not going to solve it. It will take 20 to 30 years to off-load all the fuel in the north.''
In recent years, the United States, Russia's neighbors and environmental groups have all raised alarms about the growing backlog of submarines and nuclear materials in Russia's Northern Fleet. There has been some progress: Russia stopped dumping nuclear waste at sea and has started processing some liquid waste.
But the main problem - what to do with the nuclear fuel and reactors - has left Russia paralyzed. It is another costly, unresolved legacy of the Cold War.
In the Soviet era, ''when they produced nuclear submarines, it's ridiculous, but nobody thought about how to decommission them,'' said Alexei Yablokov, head of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow. ''How is it possible, even in such a centralized economy, that no one thought about the fate of these submarines?''
This year, the problem has been compounded by Russia's deepening economic woes. Food shortages have stricken the navy, and calls have gone out for donations of potatoes to feed sailors. In August, a 19-year-old submariner went berserk, killed eight people, locked himself in the torpedo room and threatened to blow up the ship before killing himself. A nuclear-armed submarine had an accident last May that caused panic in nearby towns; it remains unexplained.
While the pace of destroying the submarines and reprocessing the fuel has lagged, the authorities have tried to conceal pollution and accidents. The Federal Security Service brought treason charges against two whistle-blowers who called attention to nuclear accidents and waste dumping. The Northern Fleet refused to respond to a reporter's questions about the submarine problems.
Unsuccessful in disposing of the pileup of nuclear materials, the navy transferred the mess last July to the Atomic Energy Ministry. The ministry is also facing hard times; its nuclear weapons scientists go unpaid for months at a time.
To cope with the submarine problem, the ministry announced it would use budget money and also sell scrap metal from the submarines. But Russia's government finances are worse than ever, and Mr. Zolotkov, the chemical engineer, raised doubts about whether salvage work alone would pay the bill.
''This is not the kind of investment that brings profit. You just have to spend it,'' he said, adding, ''The whole cycle of nuclear fuel is going to cost billions.''
In Murmansk, a sign tells passers-by the time of day, the temperature and the current level of radiation. The sign is an apt metaphor for a region that has 18 percent of the world's nuclear reactors, according to Bellona, the Norwegian environmental group that has been calling attention to the hazards for several years.
Today, the Kola Peninsula, about 144,500 square kilometers (55,600 square miles) in Russia's far northwest, between the Barents Sea and the White Sea, is a brimming nuclear fuel warehouse. Depots are packed with spent fuel assemblies, some of which have broken apart. In one of the most serious cases, at Andreeva Bay, a storage tank began to leak and some fuel assemblies fell to the bottom of a cooling tank. Although the tank was emptied and the fuel moved, the area is still contaminated with radiation. Environmental groups such as Bellona have long warned about the Andreeva Bay facility, and the Atomic Energy Ministry recently acknowledged that the situation there requires ''urgent measures'' to ''reduce the ecological risk.''
Western countries, alarmed by the potential environmental hazards, are beginning to offer help. Norway recently signed a $30 million agreement with Russia, and the United States, as part of the Nunn-Lugar program, is providing cutting equipment to help destroy submarines that must be eliminated under arms control treaties. Washington also is expected to get more deeply involved with resolving the spent fuel backlog.
Meanwhile, Murmansk and the navy towns to the north live with the prospect of catastrophic accidents on both active and decommissioned submarines.
In 1994 and again in 1996, Bellona published reports on radioactive pollution by the Russian Northern Fleet. The second report included a long description of submarine accidents. The language was blunt, describing how Soviet-made submarines were hastily built using poor-quality metals and how poorly crews were trained.
One of the authors, Alexander Nikitin, a retired navy engineer and safety expert, was accused of espionage for his contribution to the document. The Russian Federal Security Service searched Bellona's offices in Murmansk, confiscated documents and tried to stop copies of the Bellona report from entering the country.
Mr. Nikitin, who once had a top-secret clearance, was accused of gaining access to classified information in a navy library and giving Bellona ''data which discloses design faults'' in naval submarine reactors. Mr. Nikitin denied the charge. After a trial in St. Petersburg, the judge sent the case back to investigators, saying the espionage charges were too vague.