Bellona’s Russian nuclear project celebrates its 25th anniversary

lepse header. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen) The Lepse. Credit: Thomas Nilsen

Bellona’s nuclear project is a tale of how a Norwegian organization and the world community helped Russia dispose of Soviet radioactive waste.

The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was one of the reasons the Bellona Foundation came to be. In its homeland, the organization engaged in spectacular protests against Norwegian industries that were polluting the environment.

But they were also concerned about their proximity to the Soviet Union and its military activities, which threatened the entire region. Above all, the Norwegians were worried by nuclear testing on Novaya Zemlya and the presence of the Northern Nuclear Fleet.

During the Cold War, Norway had no influence over the nuclear and radiation safety of the Arctic region. With the advent of Glasnost, Bellona was presented with the opportunity to spread information and take practical action. It was this that gave our comprehensive nuclear project a start.

1994-2000

The year 1994 marks the beginning of Bellona’s nuclear project. The year prior, Bellona had published its first report – nicknamed the Black Report – entitled “Sources of Radioactive Contamination in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions.”

black report presentation The presentation of the Black Report (from left to right: Thomas Nilsen, Frederic Hauge, Nils Bøhmer, Igor Kudrik). Credit: Bellona

The Black Report, which was based on open media reports, caused a stir in Norway and other European countries, as it was nearly the first publication on the ‘forbidden’ nuclear topics of the Cold War. At the end of 1994, Bellona launched the Lespe project, which aimed to dispose of the most radioactively dangerous vessel in Northern Russia.

The Lepse floating technical base served as a repository for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and radioactive waste (RW) for many years. Its sinking could have caused massive radioactive contamination.

In 1995, the Lepse project went from talk to action. It was that year that Bellona organized an international seminar aboard the nuclear ship in an effort to draw international attention to need for safely disposing of the vessel. As a result, by the end of 1995, the Lepse project was included in the plans of the European Commission, and received international status.

Although the Lepse seminar established Bellona as an environmental organization that worked toward practical solutions to environmental problems, the group was still regarded with some suspicion in Russia. Criminal cases launched against Bellona employees in these early years reinforced this attitude and hindered development of the group’s international projects.

In 1995, Bellona undertook to write a consequential new report on radiation hazards in Russia’s Arctic region. The subject matter was mainly the nuclear ships and technical bases of Russia’s Northern Fleet, but also included civilian areas such as nuclear icebreakers and the Kola Nuclear Power Plant. At the time, some 70 percent of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear submarines were decommissioned and awaiting final disposal. Most of these vessels still held their spent nuclear fuel.

lepse The floating technical base Lepse served for many years as storage for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. Were it ever to have sunk, it could have caused massive contamination. Credit: Bellona

That these derelict vessels could flood and leak or worse remained a very real threat. But Russia at that time had practically no resources to devote to scrapping them and safely unloading their spent nuclear fuel for storage on coast bases. Not even the Russian Navy’s sailors were getting paid and a risk that nuclear materials could be stolen and sold on the black market emerged.

The “Blue Report,” as it came to be known, was officially titled The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination. Its main goal was to attract attention to Northwest Russia and the problems that could arise should the region’s nuclear facilities continue to be neglected.

The Russian Northern Fleet The Blue Report

Bellona then initiated a number of international working groups, which invited senior officials from European countries, financial institutions, as well as the US senators and congressmen that had developed the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

No one could have foreseen that the Blue Report would draw a hostile response from Russia’s secret services, much less that Bellona’s offices would be ransacked and a number of its employees detained and arrested.

From autumn 1995 until the end of 1999, Bellona’s work in Russia was almost paralyzed. At the same time, international assistance toward eliminating Northwest Russia’s nuclear legacy stalled as well, despite efforts of Bellona’s Norwegian offices to intensify these efforts.

Nikitinpumpshisfist Alexander Nikitin, director of Bellona's St Petersburg office, during the early days of his trial for his contributions to the Blue Report. Credit: Bellona

In March of 1999, Bellona arranged a seminar in Washington to address issues of nuclear and radiation safety in Russia. It was attended by US senators and congressmen, as well as by 18 members of Russian parliament.

Back to work

By spring of 2000, Bellona resumed work on its nuclear project. At the same time, a number of important things happened that had a significant impact on Northwest Russia’s radiation situation.

First, the Navy began turning control of its coast technical bases to the Ministry of Atomic Energy, a civilian authority This vastly eased the establishment of international contacts and the implementation of multilateral projects.

nikitin acquittal Alexander Nikitin (left), Frederic Hauge (middle) and Lawyer Ivan Pavlov following Nikitin's acquittal. Credit: Bellona

Bellona trained its focus on the Arctic’s most hazardous facilities – the coastal bases of Andreyeva Bay, Gremikha, as well as bases where decommissioned submarines were moored, such as Sayda Bay. Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, was also a subject of study.

For a time, the Northwest region continued to pose the same dangers it had posed during Soviet times: It was home to the largest concentration of dangerous ­– often decrepit – facilities for storing nuclear materials in the country. Numerous, often dozens of radiation-hazardous operations were carried out in the region on a daily basis.

And accidents happened. In August 2000, the Kursk nuclear submarine sank during a training operation. Three years later, also in August, the K-159 nuclear submarine sank while being towed to scrap. The Kursk was raised in 2002, but thousands of other radiation hazards remain at the bottom of Arctic seas.

The Arctic Nuclear Challenge The Yellow Report

In the wake of the Blue Report, Bellona decided it was necessary to continue its expert research, and in September of 2001, it published its “Yellow Report,” officially entitled “The Arctic Nuclear Challenge.” The goal of this work was to expand on the Blue Report to help further organize international efforts toward eliminating potential nuclear threats.

As a result, Norway began to finance a number of projects. Chief among them was the disposal of those decommissioned nuclear submarines, as well as funding for projects at Andreyeva Bay. A number of other nations fell in line with funding of their own – the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France and Canada.

From 2000 to the present, Russia has received about $2.5 billion for projects eliminating the nuclear and radiation threats in the Arctic region.

Without diverting its focus from Russia’s Northwest, Bellona began to bring its experience to bear in other regions where radiation problems were equally pressing.

nuclear subs Credit: Bellona

This included studying regions that were somehow connected with nuclear facilities and installations in the north – for instance Chelyabinsk, where the Mayak Production Association is located, and which receives spent nuclear fuel from nuclear vessels. This also comprised areas along Arctic rivers, such as Krasnoyarsk, and its Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Plant, as well as Tomsk and the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk.

We also turned our attention toward the Russian Far East, where a large number of decommissioned nuclear submarines were moored.

In early 2000, Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy underwent various transformations, which, in 2004, saw it renamed as Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation. During that time Russia’s nuclear industry changed structure. At the same time Bellona began work on its Red Report – “The Russian Nuclear Industry: The need for Reform.”

nuclear subs 2 Credit: Bellona

In 2005, the new nuclear body was headed by Sergei Kiriyenko. He brought with him new cadres and began numerous transformations to an operation that had often been called a “state within a state.” According to rumors at the time, Bellona’s Red Report was one of the main documents Kiriyenko consulted while ushering in his reforms.

The events between 1995 and 2000 were in many ways historic, and during that time the “new” Rosatom began to realize that good results could be achieved by cooperating with Bellona.

Bellona began receiving invitations to seminars and to headline forums put together by Rosatom. But there was always the same concern –always the same question in the air: “What might Bellona give away? Which of Rosatom’s secrets might it reveal?”

The turning point in that suspicious attitude came when Bellona firmly took a sea on Rosatom’s public council. New opportunities opened up. The main focus of the body is aimed at putting nuclear and radioactive waste into a safe state. At that time, there were about a billion cubic meters of such waste in Russia.

The Russian law “On radioactive waste management,” passed in 2011, indicated a strategic direction in solving this issue. All radioactive waste located on Russia’s territory must be disposed of in repositories or otherwise made safe.

nils geiger counter Nils Bøhmer, Bellona's former general director. Credit: Bellona

The Public Council established a working group for the management of radioactive waste, spent nuclear fuel, decommissioned nuclear weapons and territorial rehabilitation. Both scientists and members of the concerned public sit on the working group. The group is led by Alexander Nikitin, who heads Bellona’s St Petersburg office.

With the Public Council, it became possible for Rosatom to plan its work while availing itself of independent experts and non-profit groups. The body offers an opportunity to influence not only Rosatom’s middle management, but to forward proposals to the upper brass of the corporation.

In 2019, Rosatom took on the management of toxic waste. The Public Council reflects this new direction, and within its framework a new Ecology Commission has been created. This commission oversees two working groups: One for radioactive waste and the other for toxic waste. Alexander Nikitin oversees the work of the Commission.

Next steps

In 2020, Bellona will have to decide how to solve old problems of eliminating Russia’s heritage of nuclear and radioactive waste, how to participate in creating a state system of handling toxic waste, as well as eliminating accumulated environmental harms, such as landfills.

In the coming years, Bellona will be training a special eye at the decommissioning old nuclear reactors and other smaller, but no less dangerous, facilities. These processes will generate new wastes that will require new technologies – as well as new environmental oversight. In the next decade, Bellona’s nuclear project will move in precisely that direction.