Russian Ecologists Seek Safer Technology From US in Scrapping Nuclear Submarines

RUSSIANS in the frosty shipyard town of Severodvinsk share the concern of many American defense industry workers that the post-cold-war era will put them out of work. But more crucial than jobs, Russian scientists say, is the danger involved in decommissioning rusty nuclear submarines and ships.

``We have the information and the brains to decomission submarines,'' says Vyacheslav Puzyrev, the town's former mayor, on a visit to the United States. ``What we need [from the US] is a technology that is ecologically pure.''

Like the US, Russia is cutting back on its enormous cold war arsenal. Severodvinsk's part in this process involves removing the fuel rods from Russian Navy ships and submarines, some of which have been waiting to be decommissioned since the 1970s.

Citizens in Severodvinsk, a seaport on the White Sea in the Arctic Ocean, worry that the procedure, which occurs five to 10 times a year, could go wrong someday and result in a release of radiation as deadly as the Chernobyl explosion of 1986. As a result, city officials have taken advantage of a new Russian law that allows them to restrict military activities that affect the welfare of the civilian population.

`THIS [civilian control] could not have happened two years ago, and it might not remain in place two years from now,'' says Alexei Klimov, an ecologist from Severodvinsk. The city ``feels it has the strong hand, because the military does not want to make waves. [The military leadership] has just demobilized 40,000 officers [nationwide],'' and future authority over the soldiers is unsure.

The irony is that Americans do not enjoy a similar ability to monitor US military bases, notes Josh Handler of the antinuclear group Greenpeace, which organized Puzyrev's visit to Portsmouth. The US Navy, which runs the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, allowed Puzyrev's group limited access and refused to discuss refueling. Yard spokesmen could not be reached for comment.

The Severodvinsk visitors believe Russia must work fast to find a safer method of refueling and decommissioning subs.

``We have an example already of what can go wrong,'' says Vladimir Vaschenko, head of the department of radiation hygienics at the Severodvinsk shipyard. In 1985, he says, a blast occurred during the removal of fuel rods from a submarine near Vladivostok. Ten sailors were killed, but winds carried the clouds of nucleides away from towns nearby. ``The same sort of accident is very possible in Severodvinsk, but in this case it would be more dangerous, because the shipyard is in the downtown area.''

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.