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International anxiety over Russian nuclear waste plans

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#393
25/06/1993
Article

(June 25, 1993) According to reports this week in the leading Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, Russian authorities have decided to construct new storage sites for nuclear waste on the arctic island of Novaya Zemlya.

(393.3828) WISE Amsterdam - The idea is to clean up the growing nuclear night-- mare on the Kola Peninsula in north westernmost Russia where nuclear waste and old reactors have been dumped since the 1950s with total disregard for safeguards. However, Norwegian ecological groups fighting to protect the Barents Sea environ- ment fear the Kola Peninsula's problems will merely be shifted to the more remote Novaya Zemlya.

At the end of March 1993 the Russian government published a shocking report in which it disclosed data on how much radioactive waste Russia has dumped into the ocean since 1959. The report is titled, "Facts and Problems Related to the Dumping of R-Waste in Russian Territorial Waters." It was compiled by a team of 46 experts headed by Alexei V. Yablokov, top environmental adviser to Russian President Yeltsin.

According to the report, the Soviet Union dumped 2.5 million curies of radioactive waste, including both liquid and solid waste, and 18 nuclear reactors from submarines and an ice-breaker. The waste even included spent nuclear fuel. The total 2.5 million curies of radioactive waste is twice the combined total of waste dumped by 12 other nuclear nations.

The Japanese too are greatly concerned. While most of the waste was dumped in the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean, two reactors and a total of nearly 20,000 curies of liquid and solid waste were dumped off the far east of Russia, causing alarm throughout Japan, which relies on the area for marine products.

Also of concern is that the report reveals there was a major runaway accident at a nuclear reactor on board a submarine in Chazhma Bay (Promorskii Region) in 1985. The explosion, and a fire which raged for four hours, contaminated the vicinity with burning materials, fission products and unburned fuel in the form of small particles and dust. The area of intense radioactive contamination is concentrated at the site of the accident and the radiation level is 20-40 milli R/h. A maximum 117 milli R/h was still being registered in 1992.

It was further revealed that on 14 May, a helicopter carrying 350,000 curies of strontium-90 crashed in the Sea of Okhotsk east of Sakhalin in 1987. The accident released 19 times as much as had already been dumped in the Far East Region. However, according to the Russian government, there is no sign of radioactive contamination in the area.

After reviewing the report, the Japanese government immediately issued a statement that there was no danger to the Japanese public, but it was clearly alarmed and strongly criticized the Russian government for illegally dumping radioactive waste. Japan's Radio-activity Countermeasures Committee (made up of representatives from 11 governmental ministries and agencies) met for the first time in four years to study the case. They have decided to conduct a full survey of the ocean environment from 18 April, and to demand that the Russian government supply more detailed information on the dumping. Further, Japan plans to take up the issue with other world governments at the G-7 summit in July.

The Japanese government has also offered to cooperate with Russia in a joint survey of ocean contamination and the effects of marine life at the dumping sites. However, the survey is still- at the negotiating stage, and there is a long way to go before the full extent of ocean dumping is revealed.

 

The third reactor at Kola nuclear power station was shut down on 27 May when an emergency safety system was activated following a fall in pressure. A worker was overexposed in the incident.

An accident at Kola has been anticipated for some time, say InterPress Service's Mclvor and Perera. "The reactors - four VVER-440 pressurized water reactors - are some of the oldest of their kind. Two are first generation reactors commissioned in the early 1970s and nearing the end of their operating life. And there is also a problem of finance to keep them running. Last month the management of the Kola nuclear power plant warned that all four reactors may have to be closed down because customers were not paying for electricity. So far this year only nine percent of the power generated by the plant had been paid for...One major debtor is Tekso, which controls Murmansk's heating network and owes the plant 500 million rubles. Because of the debts the Kola plant was now unable to pay for nuclear fuel, or pay its workers their wages and safety procedures were also being affected." Plant management says that unless payments are made soon, the plant will be closed. This will mean the Kola peninsula will lose 65% of its power.

The replacement of the two older units by newer models was specified in the new Russian nuclear energy program announced at the end of last year (See WISE NC 385.3763). The addition of a third unit will bring total capacity to 2770 MW. Kola is one of the few places in Russia where there is little local hostility to nuclear power. This is partly because the harsh climate which makes a reliable source of electricity essential. In addition, the population of Kandalaksh, where the plant is sited, has been promised all sorts of benefits when the new plants are built from better social facilities to, of course, cheap electricity.

Japanese environmental groups point out that it is essential that coastal nations organize an international surveillance team to monitor radioactivity levels. It is equally vital to provide international aid and exert pressure to make the Russian government halt the ocean dumping of radioactive waste. The ocean, they say, is already contaminated irrevocably.

Much of the waste has been either dumped in the sea or stored in totally inadequate conditions, often near to human habitation. The problem of what to do with the nuclear waste that is accumulating on Kola is a major problem for scientists and environmentalists. Bellona, a Norwegian ecological group, estimates there are 25,000 used nuclear fuel rods on Kola. "At the current rate this number will quadruple by 2003 and that is very worrying," said Bellona's Thomas Nilsen. "The need for storage facilities is absolutely urgent."

Fredrik Theisen, of the Norwegian Society for Nature Conservation, also agrees there is no question that there is a pressing need for storage depots but insisted they should be built on Kola itself, home to 1.3 million people. Then, he said, the storage process could be monitored by environmental groups and the authorities in Murmansk, the major city. By contrast, independent regulation of nuclear waste disposal on Novaya Zemlya would be impossible.

Novaja Zemlja has been closed to the public since the 1950s when the local Nenets people were forcibly removed and it was radwaste dumping area in kola peninsulataken over by the Soviet military to he used as a nuclear testing ground. Radioactive waste has already been dumped unprotected on its coast, near the southern tip. Ecologists fear this could be just the beginning to far greater contamination.

According to Greg Mclvor and Judith Perera, writing for the InterPress Service, whether dumped on the Kola peninsula or elsewhere, nuclear waste is an insidious threat to the Barents Sea's rich environment. There are around 5,000 polar bears in the region and enormous sea bird colonies con-taining an estimated 15 million birds. Cod fishing in the area plays an integral role in both the Norwegian and Russian domestic economies. "Even the faintest rumors of radio-activity in the cod stocks would decimate the industry," said Theisen.

At present only background levels of radiation have been recorded in the Barents Sea, far lower than in many other waters such as the Baltic and Irish seas. However, this could change rapidly. Nuclear fuel containers across Kola are said by Norwegian scientists to be poorly constructed and many are already leaking.

Sources:

  • InterPress Service (Amsterdam), (APC networks, ips.english, 8 June 1993)
  • Nuke Info Tokyo (Japan), May/June 1993, p.1

Contacts: Bellona,Box 4483, Torshoy, 0403 Oslo, Norway.
Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, 302 Daini Take Bldg., 159-14 Higashi-nakano, Nakano-ku, Tokyo 164 Japan; tel: + 81-3-5330-9520; fax: + 81-3-5330- 9530.