The Arctic rim countries threatened by nuclear contamination from discarded atomic reactors rotting at sea around Russia's remote Kola Peninsula have launched an initiative to protect their common marine environment. Many other coastal countries are expected to support them.
At stake is the future of the principal nuclear rubbish dump of the former Soviet Union. It presents neighboring Western Europe and North America with the possibility of accidents the magnitude of Chernobyl. Murmansk, the main population center of the area and the chief port of the Russian Arctic fleet, is the site of one of the world's most unstable nuclear facilities. Lying in shallow waters nearby are 120 decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers with their burnt-up fuel and highly radioactive, obsolete reactors still intact.
Further out at sea, the Soviets dumped 20 atomic reactors, seven of them still containing spent nuclear fuel. The task of cleaning up these highly radioactive dumps or making them safe on the seabed by capping or burying them creates an enormous technological challenge for the world's maritime industries.
Russia has formally asked the West to cooperate in the safe disposal of nuclear waste as well as weaponry from its aging submarines. It has received an enthusiastic response, especially from nearby Scandinavian countries. The Barents Cooperation Council was formed in 1993 to clean up the Kola Peninsula, using mostly Nordic funds. But the traditional hostility of the Russian military, schooled in the old Soviet ways, seems to have frustrated the council's initial efforts.
Meeting in Inuvik, in Canada's Northwest Territories, the eight Arctic rim countries have now created a new, wider regional environmental agency to make safe the hazardous weapons, equipment, and attendant nuclear and chemical pollution left behind by the cold war. Their Arctic Council includes the United States and Canada as well as Denmark and Iceland, in addition to the original members of the Barents council: Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway.
Thus reinforced, the Arctic rim coalition should strengthen the position of the Kremlin in a looming confrontation with Russia's suspicious armed forces. Work could begin later this year, after the political bargaining to complete Boris Yeltsin's new government is through. The first job: dismantling obsolete nuclear-powered vessels stationed at Murmansk and at Vladivostok in the Far East.
Additional assistance is being organized for the program by the United Nations' Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), through which many other countries are anxious to participate.
A group of experts organized by the IAEA has already met in Moscow. It is charged with proposing ways of enhancing international cooperation with Russia in the area of radioactive waste management. The Moscow meeting brought together representatives of the eight Arctic rim countries plus Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, as well as the European Union as a whole. Among the issues discussed were collaborative cleanup operations and the supportive role of the IAEA.
The overall task has been outlined in an unusually frank official summary submitted by Russia to the UN's International Maritime Organization in London. This document states that the job at hand requires financial as well as industrial resources quite beyond Russia's means. The report describes a desperate situation created by the need to make safe or completely dispose of 140 reactor cores employed in Russia's northern and Pacific fleets. The safe storage room left in Russia can accommodate only three such cores.
Many nuclear-powered vessels are being retired either because of Russia's obligations under the START disarmament treaty or because of their advancing age and escalating operating costs.
Obsolete ships withdrawn from service are rusting at sea because there are no means for safely removing and disposing of their reactors. And Russia's remaining fleets of nuclear-powered vessels, the largest in the world, continue to produce 20,000 cubic meters of liquid and 6,000 cubic meters of solid nuclear waste a year - minus safe storage facilities.
Inland, the giant Kola-1 nuclear power station is operating under conditions likely to produce at least one serious reactor breakdown every 50 years, according to an estimate issued by the German Ministry of the Environment. Norwegian government experts who have studied the power plant reckon that such an accident would generate nuclear radiation 10 times the level of that recorded at Chernobyl.
The Barents council, whose chairmanship is currently held by Russia, has already assembled an ambitious, environment-oriented development plan for the area. It includes generous investment by the Scandinavians. Indeed, under the plan this region would enjoy more Western investment than any other part of Russia, but the project has so far been delayed by the antagonism of local military commanders who control much of the regional economy.
The FSB state security service successor to the infamous KGB, recently brought the issue to a head by raiding the offices of Bellona, the Norwegian environmental group that first publicized the extent of nuclear pollution in the Arctic, and charging it with spying. It has also arrested retired Russian submarine commander Alexander Nikitin, who collaborated with Bellona and uncovered serious official misconduct. He could face spying charges that carry a death penalty.
Russia's neighbors have tactfully waited until the end of presidential elections there before demanding progress toward resolving the environment crisis. The Arctic rim coalition has now created a diplomatic instrument capable of influencing the pace and direction of this crucial cleanup.
*Thomas Orszag-Land is an author and foreign correspondent who writes on global affairs.