- 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
- 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
- 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.