Wastes of War
Rotting Nuclear Subs Pose Threat
By David Hoffman
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 the fuel has broken and tanks have leaked.
The train is the only way to move the spent fuel more than 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 already has accumulated on the Kola Peninsula. What's more, more than 100 decommissioned submarines, reactors intact, are floating into rusty oblivion in nearby fiords and bays because Russia cannot afford to offload 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 offload 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 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 arms race that now haunts a country struggling to build a market economy and a democratic political system.
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. In the Far East recently, an older submarine sank while waiting for repairs. 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 questions about the submarine problems submitted by The Washington Post.
Unsuccessful in disposing of the mammoth pileup of submarines and nuclear materials, the navy transferred the mess last July to another branch of the Russian government, 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 will use budget money and also sell scrap metal from the submarines. But Russia's government finances are worse than ever, and 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."
Sign of Concern
In the center of Murmansk, a sign tells passersby 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.
When the fuel is removed from a submarine reactor, it is stored in steel containers. Each submarine has two reactors, and each reactor has between 248 and 252 fuel assemblies. The fuel is transported by boat from the shipyards and bases to the train. Usually the fuel must "cool off" for a few years before it can be reprocessed, and during that time it is often stored on one of several holding ships.
Today, the Kola Peninsula, about 55,600 square miles in Russia's far northwest, between the Barents and White seas, is a brimming nuclear fuel warehouse. Storage 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."
Russian nuclear submarines use enriched uranium for fuel. The enrichment level in fresh fuel varies from 21 to 45 percent, although a few vessels use a highly enriched 90 percent. The spent fuel contains unburned highly enriched uranium, plutonium and fission products. It is very radioactive and could be a source of material for nuclear weapons.
Yet another big, unresolved headache is that up to 10 percent of the spent fuel is damaged and cannot be shipped to Mayak for reprocessing.
For shipment, the fuel assemblies are painstakingly loaded into bottle-shaped cases. The cases are then loaded into a 44-ton, stainless-steel transport box with walls 12 inches thick. Each train car carries three of these boxes, for a total of 588 fuel assemblies if a four-car train is fully loaded. According to the Atomic Energy Ministry, the train can make no more than 10 trips a year for both the Northern and Pacific fleets.
Nikolai Melnikov, director of the Mining Institute here, which works on the problem of radioactive waste disposal, has estimated that, as of early 1996, there were 57,000 fuel assemblies backed up in the north, including those from civilian nuclear power stations. Joshua Handler of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University estimates in Jane's Navy International that the Northern and Pacific fleets have a total of 72,000 spent fuel assemblies.
Of the 150 decommissioned submarines in the Kola region, 120 are sitting in shipyards and repair docks. Of these, 104 still have their nuclear fuel on board. Another 33 submarines have had their reactor sections cut out, and the reactors remain afloat.
The whole process is troubled. The navy's equipment for removing fuel from the submarines is aging and limited, and the shipyards are plagued by strikes, overdue wages and power shortages.
In addition to the fuel assemblies, the shipyards and bases of the two fleets are storing 1.8 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste and 529,720 cubic feet of solid waste "in conditions that do not provide for the proper level of safety," according to the Atomic Energy Ministry.
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.
In taking over the submarine graveyards, the Atomic Energy Ministry said its highest priority is to start removing the spent fuel from the decommissioned vessels and put it in dry containers that have yet to be manufactured. It also wants to speed up the offloading of the fuel and clean up the contaminated bases along the Kola Peninsula.
Melnikov, the mining institute director, advocates underground storage for the radioactive waste -- including the old reactor cores -- in special vaults until the cores cool down. Although Melnikov has drawn up elaborate plans for such storage, the difficult political decision about where to build the vaults, and how to pay for the program, has not been made.
Fear of Accidents
Meanwhile, Murmansk and the navy towns to the north live with the prospect of catastrophic accidents on both active and decommissioned submarines.
On May 5, a nuclear-powered submarine armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles sent out an emergency distress signal. Word of an accident raced through the shipyards and navy towns along Kola Bay.
The sign in Murmansk did not register an increase in radiation that day, but there was panic nevertheless. People took milk and iodine as an antidote to possible radiation releases. Schools were closed in the main navy shipbuilding town of Severomorsk.
Three days later, the navy announced that there had been no emergency, just "regular planned exercises." But Western sources said the emergency involved a dangerous fuel leak on an intercontinental ballistic missile. The sub limped into port, but there was no radiation release, the sources said.
Igor Kovalev, head of the regional health department, said many people wrongly took iodine after news reports of a possible nuclear accident. "The main reason for panic is that the military system is quite closed," he said. "It's a sensible thing in the defense of any country. In this case, it was too much. They overdid the secrecy. They should have given out information on the radio and television the day before."
The Russian navy, however, has tried to keep its accidents and pollution problems under wraps.
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.
From the Nikitin indictment, recently made public, it is clear that the Russian authorities were most worried about the disclosure of the navy's accident record.
They accused Nikitin, who once had a top-secret clearance, of gaining access to classified information in a navy library and giving Bellona "data which discloses design faults" in naval submarine reactors. 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.
In another case that is still pending, the authorities accused Grigory Pasko, a military journalist in the Far East, of treason. Pasko had written numerous articles about the Pacific Fleet dumping radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan.
Yablokov said the military remains the captive of a Soviet-era mind-set in which the environment was plundered in the name of the state, and the state had absolute power to cover up its mistakes.
"During the Soviet times, it was all top, top secret," he said. "Nuclear power was beyond question and absolutely out of public view."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company