USSR Leaves Radioactive Legacy

Aging reactors, wrecked submarines, leaking waste sites called a ticking `time bomb'

RADIOACTIVE wastes dumped directly into fish-filled streams and lakes. Wrecked nuclear submarines and other ships lying abandoned on the ocean floor. Chernobyl-style nuclear reactors left to putter along without maintenance or oversight or the likelihood of repairs.

Such were the nuclear practices of the former Soviet Union, as detailed in a special field hearing held here recently by the United States Senate Intelligence Committee.

Remains of the regime once considered the greatest threat to world peace now pose an ecological threat to the earth's entire northern region, scientists and government officials told Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, the committee's vice chairman and organizer of the day-long hearing. `Time bomb with a fuse'

"It's a time bomb with a fuse, and who knows if the fuse will ever be lit," said Len Verelli, air-quality director of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation. "There's a lot of facilities over there that, given their economics, are in disrepair and could go boom."

Another committee witness, Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates, publicly confirmed for the first time the existence of this cold-war legacy.

"The former Soviet Union's attitude toward safety in handling radioactive waste materials was lackadaisical from the very beginning of its nuclear program," Mr. Gates said.

Among the details provided by Gates and other witnesses:

* Wastes from plutonium extraction at the Soviet Union's first nuclear weapons site at Chelybinsk, in southern Siberia, were dumped directly into the Techa River, contaminating the watershed for thousands of kilometers. After 1951, the Soviets switched their dumping to Lake Karachay, where today one hour's exposure at the shoreline is considered fatal by physicians.

Although Chelybinsk and other sites are far from the Arctic, Soviet practices there affected the entire north, Gates said.

"All watersheds from these sites flow to the Arctic Ocean, and waste from the polluted Techa River reportedly was discovered in the Arctic as early as 1951," he said.

* Nuclear weapons testing at Novaya Zemlya released a total of 300 megatons into the atmosphere as far away as Alaska and northern Canada. Among the tests was a 1961 blast that was 3,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima explosion.

* Nuclear-powered submarines and other vessels that sank after accidents or mechanical failures now threaten the marine environment.

Among the vessels in the Arctic Ocean is the midsection - and three nuclear reactors - of the icebreaker Lenin. The Pacific Ocean is also theatened. In 1985, for instance, a nuclear submarine exploded in Valdivostok during refueling. Creaky power plants

* Creaky Soviet-era nuclear power plants, built without safeguards, continue to pump out energy, while the financially strapped Russian government is unable to make repairs. Some 15 Chernobyl-style reactors are in operation today; smaller reactors dot the Russian Far East.

These nuclear operations have seriously endangered the health of Siberian residents, two physicians told the Senate panel. Cancer deaths around Siberian nuclear sites have skyrocketed over the past decades, the physicians said, adding that at some sites, rates jumped 18-fold during the cold war. Particularly hard hit, they say, are infants and Siberian natives.

The news about Soviet nuclear pollution is alarming many Alaskans. Ocean currents, atmospheric flows, and migrating polar ice could sweep the nuclear contamination from Siberia's north coast to Alaska and arctic areas, warned Stephanie Furman, an oceanographer with the Environmental Defense Fund.

For Alaska, the most immediate risks probably come from aging nuclear power plants, Furman said. "As the Soviet Union is breaking up, as Russia is having an even harder time, there may be more accidents," she said.

The reports prompted the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to reactivate and expand an old early-warning system that was set up in the 1970s to monitor radioactivity along the state's coastline.

Greenpeace, an environmental group that has released its own studies of Soviet nuclear pollution, said it should not have taken the US government so long to alert the public to the problem.

Josh Handler, head of Greenpeace's Nuclear Free Seas campaign, was especially critical of Gates's announcement that satellite images of the polluted areas will be released to environmental scientists only after they are issued security clearances.

"The No. 1 rule is spooks and science don't mix," Mr. Handler said. "This satellite mapping data should be out in the public domain tomorrow." A worldwide effort

Controlling the Soviet pollution, which one Alaska scientist estimated would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, will be a worldwide project, most witnesses at the Intelligence Committee's hearing agreed.

"We need your help," Valerie Trufakin, chairman of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, told the Senate panel.

"The problems are so important," he added, "that they need to be solved by the joint efforts of all countries."

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