From embattled beginnings, Bellona Murmansk marks its 25-year anniversary

Spent nuclear fuel in dry storage at Andreyeva Bay.
Spent nuclear fuel in dry storage at Andreyeva Bay.

Publish date: March 1, 2019

Twenty-five years ago, a small, youthful group of environmentalists in Murmansk was drawing the scrutiny of the Russian security services. The government in Moscow had only recently confessed that the Soviet Navy had been dumping its radioactive waste into the Arctic for decades and an anxious world beyond Russia’s borders wanted to know more.

Twenty-five years ago, a small, youthful group of environmentalists in Murmansk was drawing the scrutiny of the Russian security services. The government in Moscow had only recently confessed that the Soviet Navy had been dumping its radioactive waste into the Arctic for decades and an anxious world beyond Russia’s borders wanted to know more.

It turned out that things were even worse than Russia had let on. Unless the rest of the world pitched in with help, some 200 rusting Soviet nuclear submarines moored near Murmansk still loaded with their nuclear fuel were in danger of sinking or worse. Further north, at Andreyeva Bay, radioactive submarine fuel was stored in dilapidated crypts and even outside the open air, poised to leak into Arctic water. An old decrepit cargo ship, called the Lepse, groaned at dockside in Murmansk harbor, laden with used nuclear fuel assemblies cast off by Soviet nuclear icebreakers.

The Russian Navy – reduced begging the public for potatoes to feed its unpaid sailors – had no resources to deal with a crisis to rival Chernobyl. Russian officials, hamstrung by the economic chaos of the time, were even considering dumping the bulk of this radioactive refuse into the sea with the rest, causing worse contamination.

Young environmentalist makes his mark

It was in this climate that Igor Kudrik, then only 20 years old, founded Bellona Murmansk, Bellona’s first Russian office, on March 1 of 1994. The title of the report he authored with Nils Bøhmer and Thomas Nilsen was a foreboding mouthful, but clearly stated the problem at hand: “Source of Radioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Counties.”

Referred to later as the “Black Report” it showed in vivid detail what Moscow and the world were up against and it quickly became required reading in the West, where governments were anxious to prevent wholesale radioactive contamination in the Arctic and Northern Europe.

rossita-andreyeva-bay The Rossita disembarks for Murmansk's Atomflot port. Credit: Anana Kireev/Bellona Murmansk

But the administration of Boris Yeltsin had a fragile relationship with the new spirit of ecological glasnost. On the one hand, Moscow was ready to admit that the Cold War had left Russia’s Northwest in a state of radioactive decay. It needed the help of its Cold War foes to cope with its nuclear legacy safely and it was willing to ask for help.

On the other hand, the Grey Cardinals of the Kremlin were loath to admit that their nuclear military’s prowess had become their environmental Achilles Heel, and they wanted the matter hushed up.

For a time, the Grey Cardinals prevailed and they singled out Bellona Murmansk environmentalists as enemies and spies.

The FSB comes calling

By 1995, when Kudrik was compiling Bellona’s next groundbreaking report – The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination – Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, had begun routinely ransacking the office he had started. FSB agents searched Kudrik’s home and confiscated his computers. They brought in one of his Russian colleagues, Sergei Fillipov, for interrogation. His co-author, a former naval captain named Alexander Nikitin, was in FSB custody, charged with espionage. It would take Bellona and him the next five years to clear his name. Kudrik was eventually forced to flee Murmansk to Norway to avoid certain arrest.

bellona murmansk opening igor and nils Igor Kudrik (left) and Nils Bøhmer at the opening of Bellona Murmansk, 1994. Credit: Bellona

In the meantime, something remarkable began to happen. The small office that Kudrik founded survived, and, over the ensuing decades, the radioactive threats detailed in the Black Report disappeared. The Western government that read it were alarmed, and over the last 25 years, they have committed tens of billions of dollars to help Moscow track those threats down and secure them.

Gone, for instance, are those 200 nuclear submarines that bobbed neglected in ports near Murmansk. All have been decommissioned, their waste sent on to safe reprocessing within Russia’s nuclear industry. Gone, too, is the Lepse, a ship so contaminated that Moscow planned simply to scuttle it at sea. But thanks to the Black Report, and many more Bellona reports that followed, the massive vessel 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 been piling up since the 1960s at Andreyeva Bay. Now, thanks to a tireless two-decade crusade by Bellona Murmansk and Bellona’s other Russia offices, these fuel assemblies are now being hauled out of the Arctic to secure storage elsewhere.

And Bellona Murmansk has left local mark as well: leading negotiations with Russia’s nuclear industry and local government officials for safer handling of radioactive waste; detailing industrial pollution near Murmansk and the Norwegian border; pioneering the use of electric cars in Northwest Russia; promoting alternative energies for Russia’s far north, and fostering a spirit of cooperation among Russian authorities and western governments and environmentalists.

Work continues despite ‘foreign agent’ bullying

Yet for all the clear good it’s done, Bellona Murmansk doesn’t’ always have an adoring audience in the Kremlin. In fact, it still grapples with the same forces that put Nikitin on trial and sent Kudrik into exile a quarter of a century ago.

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent." Credit: Memorial

In 2015, Bellona Murmansk, was closed down after it was targeted by the “foreign agent” law — a repressive Russian state tactic to bully and silence non-profit organizations. The group’s apparent sin was publishing a report on pollution coming from a nickel factory on Northwest Russia.

That was followed in January of 2017 by an accusation of “political activity” against Bellona Murmansk’s sister organization, Environmental Right Center Bellona in St Petersburg. Russia’s Justice Ministry, which is responsible for blacklisting non-profits, charged that ERC Bellona’s work was geared toward “forming socio-political opinions and convictions” about the state of Russia’s environment.

Well, no kidding. But the ludicrous accusation was enough for ERC Bellona to disband as a non-profit, taking it along the same route as hundreds of other rights and environmental groups that have been sunk by the Kremlin’s foreign agent crusade.

But the group persists. In the face of certain Kremlin forces that would silence it, Bellona Murmansk and their colleagues in Oslo reformed the organization along new bureaucratic lines, and it continues as before.

In the 25 years since Kudrik, Nilsen and Bøhmer wrote the Black Report, the Russian environment has become immeasurably safer. Weapons of nuclear war have been put to rest.  The Russian nuclear industry itself – once the temple of so many Soviet secrets – has begun, slightly, to open up. And Bellona Murmansk has been there, nudging the door.

Yet in many ways the organization’s work is incomplete. There are more doors to open. Its particular alchemy of ecology and openness is often still too potent brew for the Kremlin to swallow. Perhaps another 25 years will help sweeten the mix.