MURMANSK – Small places can sometimes beget big dreams. This month, as Bellona Murmansk celebrates its 20th anniversary, the office may not have anymore skyline views or mahogany conference tables than in did in 1994, pressure from its often-cramped quarters have begun to move mountains.
Founded as Bellona’s first office in Russia, Bellona Murmansk’s focus has remained steady: The remediation of Soviet legacy naval nuclear refuse, and a strong push for wind and other renewable energies in an area that is ripe for their implementation.
Challenges facing environmental organizations and other NGOs under the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin have been far from smooth sailing. This is especially with the advent of the so-called “foreign agent” law. The 2012 legislation requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity to register as foreign agents or be fined or shut down.
Bellona President Frederic Hauge, who with other Bellona staff is in Murmansk for the anniversary, said that Bellona Murmansk, and its perceived notion as a foreign influence were something he is acutely aware of in Oslo, and he also underscored that the organization has nothing to do with political activity.
Rather, in these most recent times of government crackdowns and a rapidly changing political landscape in Russia, Hauge is sanguine about relations between neighbors, as opposed to relations between states.
“I am not interested in borders,” he said. “I’m interested in relations with my neighbors and what common things we can do to better our mutual situations – there’s nothing wrong with that. That is not doing anything that is legally wrong.”
Yesterday, Hauge and other Bellona staff made their way across the frozen moonscape between Kirkenes, Norway and Murmansk in a Tesla Model S sedan – a small journey that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.
The journey constituted the first-ever long distance electric car tour of Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The car made the 230 kilometer journey through minus 20 degree temperatures with power to spare. This was indeed a good thing: where chargers for electric cars are commonplace in Norway, there are absolutely none between the border and Murmansk.
The car’s arrival in Russia’s formerly closed naval port city late last evening was greeted like the landing of a UFO. Today, the local press descended as Hauge gave reporters and cameramen a spin.
The journey was a microcosm of Bellona’s work in Northwest Russia – a story of steady perseverance against seemingly insurmountable obstacles toward a cleaner environment.
“On this anniversary, we can look back on many of the issues we set out to solve and see that a great many of them are secured,” Hauge said. “It shows that if you work hard, you really can achieve results.”
One little electric car could spark new innovations
In fact, many of the issues that still dog Russia from an ecological standpoint can be put to work toward building, for instance, more Tesla Model S electric cars.
The giant Norilsk Nickel, whose daughter companies in the Murmansk Region, are some of the biggest pollution producers in Russia. Norway and Murmansk have long been at loggerheads over how to reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that cross the northern borders.
But Hauge is trying to bring Norilsk Nickel and Tesla in to a dialogue – after all, Tesla needs the nickel to make its car batteries, and Norilsk Nickel is never shy of pursuing further business.
Tesla, said Hauge, has strict demands that all stages of its production chain be clean: Hence production for Tesla could be an incentive for Norilsk Nickel to clean up its act.
“If Norilsk-Nickel builds a new state-of-the-art, zero emission production line for nickel, they could surly grab huge market shares in supplying the battery production for electric cars,” Hauge told journalists today.
“Tesla is a game-changer for the car industry. Driving the car to Murmansk is important for Bellona in our work to provide solutions to pollution problems,” said Hauge. “Long-range electric vehicles are perfect for Murmansk – charged with electricity from hydro-power or wind power such cars are the future, also here in the north.”
This is no small point in Russia, Europe’s fastest growing automobile market in Europe.
However, like most things Bellona Murmansk has pursued in Russia, however, history show that there are no overnight miracles.
Among one of the most long in the coming has been Bellona Murmansk’s contribution to the success of moving the Lepse nuclear waste storage vessel out of Murmansk harbor in 2012, where it languished at dockside at the city’s Atomflot nuclear icebreaker port since 1988. Hauge was on hand to escort the vessel out of Murmansk harbor.
The obvious radiological hazard – containing 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies, some of them damaged –was towed from among the city’s 300,000 strong population and sent for a long, technically involved dismantling process at the Nerpa shipyard 20 kilometers north on Kola Bay. The dismantlement process is expected to take some 23 years, said Bellona Murmansk director Andrei Zolotkov.
Bellona’s involvement with the Lepse dates back to the founding of Bellona Murmansk, and the organization helped build dormitory facilities for workers aboard the ship so they no longer had to sleep on it, significantly reducing their exposure to radiation, Hauge recalled today.
Despite some initial hitches at the shipyard about where to put the vessel into dry dock, the Lepse is scheduled to undergo its first stages of dismantlement in May.
The epic tale of the Lepse will conclude when the ship and its spent nuclear fuel are sent in special packing to a uniquely conditioned facility at Sayda Bay, a former fishing village annexed by the Russian Navy in 1990 to store hulls and reactor compartments from nuclear submarines.
Other stockpiles of military nuclear waste
Sayda Bay and Andreyeva Bay now serve as storage sites for the hulls and reactor compartments of old nuclear submarines, and the Russian Navy’s nuclear and radioactive waste, respectively.
The more notorious Andreyeva Bay, located 40 kilometers from the Norwegian border, is one of the thorniest nuclear installations to rehabilitate. Built between 1960 and 1964 as a long term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste produced by Russia’s northern nuclear submarine fleet, the facility’s infamous building 5 experience and accident in 1982.
It was discovered that water levels in the buildings cooling pools for spent nuclear fuel had fallen dramatically as the result of a leak that was dumping contaminated water into the waters of the bay.
Russian officials did not acknowledge the leak until 1993 after Bellona brought it to light.
Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, in close consultation with Bellona Murmansk has made significant inroads into securing Andreyeva Bay. Specialists have constructed shielding to isolate the spent nuclear fuel and have designed a shelter over the nuclear waste storage unit that covers 10,000 tons, or 48 containers, of solid radioactive waste.
The main hurdle at this point is the construction of a nuclear waste management complex. This complex was slated for completion in 2015, but considerations for its safe construction have pushed that back to the first quarter of 2016.
Safe construction implies that the Andreyeva Bay site is being fitted with a host of new equipment, which needs to be put to tender, and then produced and installed.
Bellona Murmansk director Zolotkov was, on the day of the organization’s anniversary, visiting Andreyeva Bay for more discussions with technicians at work there.
The spent nuclear naval fuel there should start being hauled away in either 2016 or 2012, depending on how Rosatom prioritizes the issue.
Storage of nuclear waste in Russia’s Northwest
This and other waste is going to have to be stored somewhere and Bellona Murmansk is deeply involved in reviewing Rosatom plans for building as many as two nuclear waste repositories in Northwest Russia, one slated to open in 2020 and another, according to Rosatom plans, perhaps as soon as this year.
The issue remains controversial. Repositories are at current the only method in the world thought to be able to safely handle highly radioactive waste for dozens of thousands of years. At the same time, the technology remains largely untested and only Finland has successfully deployed it.
In that case, the Finish government had the full democratic support of the community hosting the repository. In Russia, where such decisions are more often reached by government fiat, Bellona would urge in the talks, beginning in Murmansk tomorrow, that substantial community involvement be taken into account prior to citing and filling any repositories.
Bellona Murmansk has also maintained close contact over the last 20 years with Russia’s civilian nuclear icebreaker fleet. Director Zolotkov, in fact, used to work there.
The civilian icebreaker fleet brings about a whole new realm of nuclear hazards that need attention and funding – and most of all safety, given the fleet’s location some 4 kilometers north of central Murmansk.
But, as a sign that can only be taken as a nod of good faith, Bellona Murmansk’s 20th Anniversary soirée will be held this evening aboard the decommissioned nuclear icebreaker Lenin.