Bellona in Russia

Publish date: April 19, 2006

The Bellona Foundation has two offices in Russia―Bellona Murmansk and the Environment and Rights Centre (ERC) Bellona in St. Petersburg. Both organisations are funded by grants and support from the central office in Oslo.

Through these two organistions, The Bellona has become one of the world’s preeminent non-governmental organisations working with nuclear problems in Russia. Norway’s northern coast borders Russia near strategic points for Russia’s ailing Northern Nuclear Fleet and its potential for spreading radioactive contamination. But while Bellona may have gained its fame for its research on the Northern Fleet and Arctic area, its work has steadily expanded to include much more of Russia’s nuclear industry. What Bellona’s work came to reveal was an ailing structure inherited from Soviet times that had not been changed or improved at all. It was no longer a problem of feared contamination of Norway’s northern shores. It was a global issue.

The Chernobyl disaster blew the lid off the secrecy, at least for a time, surrounding the Soviet nuclear industry, and where before there was no access to information, there came access to what was almost too much. Bellona seized the opportunity to sort through this information and let the world know what lies behind the crumbling iron curtain.


While Russia was still receptive to international involvement concerning its nuclear programme, Bellona researchers traveled to Northwest Russia to investigate sources of possible radioactive contamination. The result was Bellona’s first report in 1994 on nuclear dangers in Russia, entitled “Sources of Radioactive Contamination In the Murmansk and Arkangelsk Counties,” co-written by the local NGO For a Nuclear Free North. The report was translated by Igor Kudrik, a staffer with For a Nuclear Free North, who now works in Bellona’s Oslo office. The report was presented in Murmansk and copies later presented to the Russian military and nuclear brass. In 1994, Bellona established an office in Murmansk headed up by Kudrik―the first of Bellona’s four international offices.

Andrei Zolotkov is the current director of Bellona-Murmansk. A former member of Russian parliament during Soviet times, Zolotkov disclosed information to the world about the environmentally dangerous waste dumping practices of the Soviet icebreaker fleet and the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet. At present, Bellona Murmansk is tackling not only these problems, but is investigating oil drilling on Russia’s Arctic continental shelf. The office is also pressing authorities to investigate renewable energy for the Kola Peninsula, which would allow the Kola Nuclear Power Plant to be closed.

The Murmansk office also took on as one of its first projects the Lepse floating nuclear waste storage facility in Murmansk harbour. Severly dilapidated, the Lepse, which serviced icebreakers at sea, still sits filled with damaged nuclear fuel rods and radioactive waste, located a mere 4 kilometres from central Murmansk. It is a problem that the Bellona’s Murmansk office is still working with local authorities and scientists to solve.

In September of the same year, Bellona researchers Kudrik, Nilsen and Boehmer traveled to Siberia and visited the nuclear storage sites of the former weapons-grade plutonium production sites at Tomsk and Zheleznogorsk. There, they documented and photographed the sites’ dilapidated fences and other security risks. The Bellona team’s research contradicted then-President Boris Yeltsin’s assertion that all of Russia’s nuclear production facilities were secure. For the first of many times, Bellona found itself in a political dust-up with Russian authorities.

The Nikitin Case and the founding of ERC Bellona

Toward the end of 1994, Bellona made one of its most important and enduring contacts in the person of Alexander Nikitin, a former naval captain and an ex-nuclear safety inspector for the Russian Ministry of Defense. Nikitin became one of the lead authors of Bellona’s report entitled “The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination.” So began a campaign of FSB harassment and surveillance as the secret service agency tried to detect espionage in the work of Bellona’s Russian authors, who were drawing all of their material from public and open sources.

A Bellona-Murmansk employee Sergei Filippov was stopped at Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg en route to Norway. He had with him computer discs containing information on radiation contamination on the Kola Peninsula, and was brought in for questioning. Nikitin was also questioned the same day. The next day, the Bellona-Murmansk office was raided by FSB agents and computers, fax machines and files were confiscated. Employees’ apartments were also raided. Nothing illegal was found in the FSB raids, but the persecution ultimately resulted in Nikitin’s arrest on charges of treason and espionage in February 1996.

The report was to be presented at the 1996 G-7 Conference in Moscow so world leaders could get a glimpse of the Chernobyl in slow motion that the derelict Norther Fleet presented. The Nikitin case dragged on for nearly five years as the FSB trotted out classified defence ministry decrees Nikitin had allegedly violated. He was finally cleared of all charges with the intense efforts of Bellona’s Russian and Norwegian lawyers in September 2000. The case also led to the opening in of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC), directed by Nikitin after he was freed from detention on the condition that he not leave St. Petersburg, in 1997. After Nikitin’s acquittal, ERC Bellona expanded to some 15 lawyers, environmentalists and journalists.

“The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination” was presented in Russia and worldwide in 1996 and remains to this day one of the most authoritative texts on the topic of the Russian nuclear navy. The Northern Fleet report was followed in 2001 by Bellona’s report entitled “The Arctic Nuclear Challenge,” of which Nikitin was also a primary author, and that offered many solutions to the problems exposed by the Northern Fleet report.

“The Russian Nuclear Industry―The Need for Reform”

One of Bellona’s Russian office’s biggest achievements was the publication of the organisation’s latest report “The Russian Nuclear Industry―The Need for Reform.”

In this report, researchers in Bellona’s St. Petersburg and Oslo offices evaluated the ailing Russian nuclear industry and its installations in a scientific manner, measuring possible harm to human health and the environment posed by each one. The report asserts that Russia inherited the Soviet nuclear legacy, but has done little to rethink whether the Soviet nuclear plans are viable. It also examined in detail the economy of the industry, and evaluated the foreign aid that is propping it up. It also offered several conclusions on how to improve the situation on all fronts. The report was released in English in the European Parliament in November 2004, in Washington, D.C. in June 2005 and in Moscow in July 2005 to overwhelming praise.

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