Ausgabe 50/2005

Cold War Legacies Nuclear Waste in the Russian Arctic

Vodka isn't the only thing Russia produces a lot of. During the Cold War the country also had a fondness for nuclear submarines. Today, although a lot of the subs are out of action, the question of what to do with the nuclear waste, particularly in the northern city of Murmansk, has yet to be solved.

By Erich Wiedemann

Murmansk, once the home of Russia's nuclear submarine fleet, has become the country's nuclear waste site.

Murmansk, once the home of Russia's nuclear submarine fleet, has become the country's nuclear waste site.

"No, I will not venture south, to warm suns, to a faraway beloved; I will stay with you, Murmansk, oh beautiful city of my heart." The anonymous folk poet who submitted this verse to his local newspaper is living proof that art does not need to be based on reality to blossom. 

Mainly  because the anonymous poet's optimistic verse reflects everything but reality in Murmansk. It's a depressing city on the Arctic Circle, with mountains of scrap steel, decrepit factories and prefabricated concrete apartment buildings in drab Soviet gray. The region, permanently blanketed in yellowish smog, is a barren wasteland of plastic bags blowing in the wind across the frozen ground. In the winter the sun never makes it above the horizon and it's dark outside 24 hours a day. Temperatures sometimes drop to as low as -45°C (-49°F). Those who can afford to leave, and who don't have the ability to see the city through the rose-tinted spectacles of the poet, move away as soon as possible. Since the early 1990s, the city in Russia's Kola region has lost 120,000 inhabitants, almost a third of its population.

It's hard to believe, but the filth, the stench and the wayward plastic bags aren't the worst aspects of life in this gloomy city in Russia's frozen north. About 20 percent of the world's nuclear reactors are concentrated on the Kola Peninsula -- in power plants, ice breakers and, most of all, nuclear submarines -- and the amount of nuclear waste they produce far exceeds existing shipping capacity.

Not surprisingly, the Murmansk region has turned into a nuclear waste dump of sorts, and is home to 20,000 fuel rods, 12,000 cubic meters (about 333,360 cubic feet) of nuclear waste and 11,000 containers that the Russian navy has simply dumped into the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, both in the Arctic Ocean. As well as this, Russia's North Fleet deliberately sank 13 nuclear submarines between the large islands of Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya, six of them complete with reactors and fuel rods. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin admits that the country's disposal methods are "insufficiently developed." So what should be done with all this nuclear waste?

Germany to the  rescue

When he was still in office, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised Putin technical support for the dismantling of radioactive submarines and the safe storage of waste. Now it's up to German engineers to figure out a way to defuse Murmansk's ticking time bond, in a project the German government is funding to the tune of 300 million euros.

The Kola peninsula on the Barents Sea has the world's highest concentration of active and derelict nuclear reactors.

The Kola peninsula on the Barents Sea has the world's highest concentration of active and derelict nuclear reactors.

During the Cold War, up to 150 nuclear submarines were stationed in the Murmansk region at any given time. Each sub had two reactors, and contained between 248 and 252 nuclear fuel rods. Most of these giants, some as long as 170 meters (558 feet), have been decommissioned in the past 15 years. But at least 40 still contain their reactors, complete with radioactive fuel rods. Like rusted whales, these floating potential environmental disasters sit at anchor in the Kola fjords, waiting to be stripped of their radioactive bowels.

Most of the region's highly radioactive fuel rods are stored in concrete containers in Andrejeva Bay. Many of these now-crumbling containers, intended only as temporary storage for nuclear waste, are kept on three freighters in Murmansk harbor. The biggest of the three ships, the 69-year-old "Lepse," carries significant amounts of uranium 235, plutonium 259 and various fissionable byproducts. To cram as much waste as possible onto the ship, workers used sledge hammers to force individual fuel rods into the hollow containers. The "Lepse" constantly has to be pumped up with compressed air to prevent it from sinking. Despite the ship's close proximity to downtown Murmansk, the radiation level displayed on an early-warning panel at the city's main bus station is always zero.

The next Chernobyl?

While this is worrying enough, officials at the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna are also deeply concerned about the condition of the Poljarnye Sori nuclear power plant. In the early 1990s, the IAEA calculated that there is a 25 percent probability of a meltdown occurring at the plant within the next 23 years. At the time, experts with the U.S.-Russian Non-proliferation Program determined that Russia has more than ten times as much fissionable material as was believed to be the case during the Soviet era.

This is mainly because Russians are frugal people and don't like to throw away things that could still be of some use. So instead of placing spent fuel rods into permanent storage sites, they prefer to reprocess them. But the 50-year-old "Mayak" (lighthouse) nuclear processing facility near Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, Russia's only plant capable of reprocessing high-level waste, can handle only a fraction of the country's nuclear material. Every few months, a train consisting of four or five armored castor freight cars completes the more than 2,500 kilometer (1,553 miles) trip to Chelyabinsk. At this rate, it would take at least 20 years to clean up the Kola Peninsula -- assuming new waste weren't being added every day, which it is.

Hope though is coming from abroad. A team of experts from Germany's "Energiewerke Nord" is currently supervising the construction of a temporary storage facility for reactor containers in Saida Bay, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Murmansk. "Storage facility" is perhaps too grand a term for the project, which consists of a giant, meter-thick concrete platform, 200 meters (656 feet) long and 200 meters wide. The platform will serve as a depository for the middle segments of decommissioned nuclear submarines, which can weigh up to 2,200 tons apiece. The scrapped submarine sections will be stored for 70-80 years, which is the amount of time deemed sufficient until radiation has subsided sufficiently to allow them to be dismantled safely.

A lot of money for a slab of concrete

The German government is spending 150 million euros on the giant platform, likely making it the world's most expensive slab of concrete. "But it's also the best," says Horst Schneider, a nuclear expert with Germany's Ministry of Economic Affairs. The price includes extras and a pontoon docking station, as well as the cost of preparing the soil and leveling the site.

The workers at the Saida Bay construction site earn a decent living. Concrete worker Dmitry Bichkovsky says that he and his family have never been as well off. But the army recruits sent to the Kola Peninsula to handle Russia's nuclear waste aren't doing nearly as well. They receive 1.50 euros per month in additional hazard pay.

The Russian Kursk nuclear submarine was the navy's biggest and newest sub before it sank in the Barents Sea in 2000.

The Russian Kursk nuclear submarine was the navy's biggest and newest sub before it sank in the Barents Sea in 2000.

The Germans are making headway at Saida Bay. This year, temperatures in the region already dropped to a few degrees below freezing by early December. Concrete can be poured at temperatures as low as -25°C (-13°F), provided the construction site is heated. If all goes well, the first "triple section," as it's called in engineering jargon, will be pushed onto the platform next spring.

The Russians keep a constant eye on the German engineers, despite the fact that there is nothing here worth spying on. Technologically speaking, everything -- the harbor and shipyard facilities, the ships, the submarines -- is radically outdated. But in Russia anything that the intelligence services have not expressly classified as harmless is considered secret. When the wreck of the "Kursk," which sank with 118 sailors on board in August 2000 following an explosion, was dismantled at the Nerpa shipyard, Murmansk was declared a high-security zone for weeks.

A work-place which loses a lot more than stationary

The Russians' obsession with control suggests a high level of security, which is, in fact, nonexistent. Last year, the deputy director of a shipyard involved in the dismantling of nuclear vessels was caught in an attempt to smuggle a kilogram of uranium 235 from the shipyard. The amount of fissionable material stolen is impossible to estimate. The IAEA believes that for every kilogram of nuclear material seized by authorities, at least 10 kilograms of material go undetected.

Because the German engineers usually remain at the construction site for only a few days at a time, the German flag flying above the Nerpa shipyard is usually the only sign that this is a German-led construction project. Despite the excessive level of secretiveness at the site, the German experts get along well with their Russian counterparts. They have all studied in Moscow, speak fluent Russian and understand the importance of being able to toast their Russian colleagues with a glass or two of vodka.

On a Thursday morning, in a project meeting in the Nerpa shipyard's large conference room, project manager Holger Schmidt, his staff and a delegation from Berlin meet with the shipyard's board of directors. The first order of the day is a breakfast of bacon, sausage and marinated herring, as well as plenty of Russian Baltika Beer.

The negotiations are difficult. By the time the group breaks for a late afternoon lunch, shipyard director Alexander Gorbunov raises his water glass, filled halfway to the brim with vodka, to give a Dostoyevskian toast: "Long live disagreement, because with it comes the opportunity to achieve peace." Both the Russians and the Germans are tough, confident and in-your-face negotiators, despite the fact that in this situation, only one side is doing the giving while the other is consistently on the receiving end.

The Norwegian environmental organization Bellona believes that the Schröder-Putin agreement is not just the product of a sober consideration of the facts, but also the result of a warm friendship between two men. "What the Germans have built here is useful, but it isn't the main issue," says Russia expert Nils Bøhmer. According to Bøhmer, the empty reactor containers are not nearly as hazardous as the spent fuel rods. "Germany would have been better off participating in the construction of a temporary storage site for fuel rods." But that would have been out of the question, because the Russians refuse to allow any foreigners near their nuclear fuel.

The Russian navy plans to build a new generation of nuclear submarines in Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk region. Of course, no one has thought about what to do with the spent nuclear fuel from these new vessels. But the Barents Sea is vast, and has plenty of room for more secrets.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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