New report details Bellona’s first 20 years in Russia

k159-ready-for-tow-640x480 The K-159 nuclear submarine at dock in Gremikha awaiting its final tow. Credit: Bellona

A little more than 20 years ago, in Murmansk, Russia, the relics of the Cold War were still close at hand. Nealy 200 nuclear submarines, the calling card of the once-feared Soviet Navy, sat rusting at dockside at bases throughout the country’s Northwest, their reactors still loaded with nuclear fuel. Whether they would sink, possibly sparking uncontrolled nuclear reactions, was unknown.

Further from shore and under the waves laid other submarines and nuclear waste intentionally scuttled by the Soviet Navy. Still more radioactive spent fuel was piling up in storage tanks and open-air bins in shipyards and leaky submarine refueling points like Andreyeva Bay near Russia’s border with Norway

Political turmoil and economic lack in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 made removing and disposing of these nuclear hazards nearly impossible without international help.

But within Russia, even mentioning these environmental storm clouds was taboo: At a time when the Russian Navy had to beg the public for donate potatoes to feed its sailors, the Kremlin prosecuted environmentalists who drew attention to the mounting radiation troubles as spies.

In this bleak period during the early 1990s, many Russian experts despaired that the toxic remains of the Cold War would lie neglected for decades – or at least until the country somehow woke up wealthy enough to deal with them.

Now, after more than two decades of international effort spearheaded by Bellona, nearly all of those threats are the stuff of history. How that came to pass is the subject of our new report entitled “Elimination of the Cold War’s Heritage: 20 years of international cooperation.

It was a slow and painstaking process. But by publishing a series of groundbreaking reports that Russian authorities often tried to censor, Bellona became the nexus of a mammoth multi-nation effort to get help to where it was needed.

The first among these reports was written by Alexander Nikitin, a former Soviet Navy captain, along with some young Norwegians from Bellona, and it showed, in stark detail, that the once-mighty Soviet nuclear submarine fleet was in a state of irreversible, ecologically lethal decay.

Though authorities sought to suppress the report – banning it in Russia and charging Nikitin himself with treason – it provided a too-to list for Western governments who wishes to help alleviate this dangerous heritage.

With the establishment of Bellona’s offices in Murmansk and St Petersburg, those governments have committed tens of billions of dollars to help Moscow decommission Soviet nuclear vessels and clean up radioactive waste. Nikitin’s eventual acquittal drew further attention to Northwest Russia’s radiation plight.

Gone, for instance, are 198 nuclear submarines that bobbed neglected at dockside near Murmansk. Each has been decommissioned, their waste sent on to safe reprocessing within Russia’s nuclear industry, thanks to cooperative efforts among Moscow, Western Europe and the United States – none of whom, including Moscow, had a clear picture of how dire the dangers were until Bellona thrust them into view.

Gone, too, is the Lepse, a nuclear waste storage ship so contaminated that Moscow planned simply to scuttle it in high seas of the Arctic. But thanks in large part to Nikitin’s report, and the atmosphere of openness stubbornly forged by Bellona, the massive vessel, which spent 30 years at sea refueling nuclear icebreakers, is being carefully dismantled, the waste it held onboard packaged for long term storage.

And not yet gone but going are the dangers posed by 22,000 radioactive fuel assemblies that had piled up since the 1960s in a nearly forgotten submarine base called Andreyeva Bay. Through decades of neglect and inadequate government funding, tanks storing the assemblies began to crumble and decay, threatening to spill a stew of plutonium and uranium into the Barents Sea. But now, thanks to a tireless two-decade crusade by Bellona, these fuel assemblies are now being hauled out of the Arctic to secure storage elsewhere.

Bellona’s offices in Russia have left local mark as well, training and supporting legal professionals in their fight for ecological justice, and leading negotiations with Russia’s nuclear industry for safer nuclear power plants and handling of radioactive waste.

By now, much of what Bellona had hoped to accomplish in those early years has now become part of official Russian government spending programs, and once rocky relations with authorities have been smoothed over by persistence and expertise. Here’s to the next 20 years.