Radioactive waste and Russia's Northern Fleet: sinking the principles of international environmental law.

Author:Mellor, Justin

Communication with the Russian military on the Kola Peninsula is poor. We can understand their situation, but the problems of nuclear waste there are so great that they have to be solved. A catastrophe in the North would affect the whole of Europe.

Jorgen Kosmo, Norwegian Defense Minister(1)


    In 1959 the first Soviet nuclear submarine, the Leninski Komsomol (K-3), entered into service and since that time the former Soviet Union (FSU) has launched a total of 248 nuclear powered submarines.(2) The majority of these vessels have served with Russia's Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk in the Barents Sea region.(3) At the height of the Cold War the Barents region was home to the highest concentration of nuclear weapons and nuclear powered submarines in the world, due, in part, to the fact that the region contained the only ice free ports on the Russian Arctic.(4)

    The Soviets, like their NATO counterparts, began their nuclear building program with little thought to how the nuclear vessels would be decommissioned without creating serious environmental damage.(5) As these submarines have reached the end of their natural service lives, they have become environmental hazards.(6) The spent fuel from the submarines, and the reactor compartments themselves, pose serious health and environmental risks.(7) Since the end of the cold war, a combination of factors, including financial restraint, maintenance problems and arms control, have accelerated the rate of decommissioning, thereby aggravating the problem.(8) At present, the Northern Fleet's interim storage facilities are exhausted and much of the waste is being stored in an unsafe manner.(9) Though immediate damage from Russian activities may not be obvious, exposure to even low levels of radiation may have grave consequences for the health and well being of people in neighboring states.(10)

    International, regional and bilateral initiatives have been created in response to the nuclear waste problems generated by the Russian Navy.(11) Many of these have provided funds for studies and initial aid towards solving the problems of waste disposal.(12) The Rovanniemi Declaration on the Protection of the Environment(13), signed by the eight Arctic nations,(14) cited the importance of international co-operation and financial support in the "rehabilitation of areas that have been polluted as a result of the operation of nuclear facilities."(15) Similarly, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council in the Kirkenes Declaration recognized it as a serious problem that requires international co-operation.(16) Despite this push towards international co-operation and aid for dealing with its spent fuel problem, the Russian Navy has continued to operate nuclear powered submarines and is presently engaged in building and launching new vessels that rely on nuclear propulsion.(17)

    This paper argues that the international community is undermining principles of international environmental law, such as state responsibility and co-operation. Russia has not been admonished for its violation of existing treaD law, such as the London Convention,(18) and has instead become the beneficiary of international aid.(19) By reconstructing the problem as regional, Russia has avoided the issue of state responsibility. It has further ignored the precautionary approach and has launched new submarines as well as proposing the creation of floating nuclear plants for the Arctic communities based on naval reactor designs.(20) Regional co-operation has become nothing more than a military subsidy in that it allows the Russian Navy to avoid diverting portions of its operational budget into nuclear waste disposal and treatment.

    Before analyzing this problem from the principles of state responsibility and co-operation, it is first necessary to outline the scope and magnitude of the nuclear waste problem.


    Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Former Soviet Union (FSU) engaged in an extensive submarine building program, culminating in the construction of 248 submarines.(21) Over the years, the FSU has suffered fifty-two known accidents involving nuclear submarines or vessels.(22) Before 1992, the navy often dumped spent fuel and reactor compartments, along with low level waste, into the Barents Sea.(23) In the area surrounding Novaya Zemlia, the navy has dumped two submarines, one with two loaded reactors, the other with a reactor containing spent fuel.(24) In total, thirteen submarine reactors were disposed of in the area;(25) six of them containing varying amounts of spent fuel.(26) Dumping was typically carried out when a submarine was damaged or when its fuel could not be extracted safely and put into interim storage to await reprocessing.(27) This occurred despite domestic and international prohibitions against dumping.(28)

    Due to a combination of fiscal restraint and the START agreements, the rate of decommissioning has rapidly accelerated.(29) By 1998 the FSU had retired approximately 167 submarines and was averaging about twenty submarines per year.(30) In the Northern Fleet alone, there are presently 132 inoperative reactors in decommissioned vessels,(31) many of which have fuel assemblies remaining in the reactors because of the critical shortage of storage space.(32)

    The FSU procedure for dealing with spent fuel involves off loading the fuel onto service ships, which then transport it to fuel depots for temporary storage. After cooling, the spent fuel is transported by rail to the Mayak reprocessing plant in the Urals.(33) The contaminated reactor compartments are then sealed up and stored afloat.(34) Due largely to fiscal problems, the FSU has not been able to afford the cost of transportation and reprocessing.(35) Consequently, approximately 49,000 spent fuel assemblies are now sitting in interim storage,(36) some being stored improperly at outdoor sites.(37)

    It is difficult to assess the extent of the environmental damage from the FSU submarine program. It is generally believed that there is wide spread "low level contamination" throughout the entire fleet support facility.(38) Some recent reports have found an eight-fold increase in radioactivity in the sediment found around the Kola bases in the last three years.(39) The amount of Cobalt 60 found in the vicinity of the naval base at Poljarny has increased from 10 (bq/kg) to 80 (bq/kg).(40) Scientists from the Russian Academy of Science's Marine Biology Institute discovered that levels of Caesium 137 in Andreeva Bay near Norway had also increased.(41) These increases are likely due to deteriorating storage facilities.(42) A recent European Commission report concluded, "the storage situation constitutes a major hazard to the population of the area and the environment.(43)

    However, a 1996 review of studies carried out on radioactive nuclides in the region concluded that most of the marine pollution was composed of Caesium 137 and Strontium 90, both of which could be traced directly to the Chernobyl accident and nuclear atmospheric tests carried out in the Soviet north.(44) This finding lends support to an early International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) study that found fine grain ocean sediment actually traps radioactivity and limits environmental damage.(45) This has led some to suggest that the dumping option may be a safe environmental solution to Russia's problem.(46)

    The immediate absence of extensive radioactive marine contamination does not mean that a problem does not exist. Almost all of the dumped naval reactors were filled with a special hardening solution to prevent salt-water deterioration, which means it may be some time before the effects of the contamination begin to appear in the environment.(47) The potential for an accident also increases as more submarines await decommissioning or are scrapped.(48) The shortage of interim storage facilities poses grave hazards and there have already been reports of leakages and accidents.(49) Russian Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Nikolay Yegorov has stated that "matters worsen every year ... and could turn into a catastrophe worse than Chernobyl."(50) Government statements such as this are of obvious concern to Russia's northern neighbors.

    The lack of Russian government funding resulted in only two submarines being scrapped in 1997 for both the Pacific and Northern Fleets.(51) In addition, at the current rate of fuel shipment, it will take thirty to forty years to reprocess all of the spent fuel.(52) In spite of these facts, the Russian Navy has continued operations and a nuclear building program. In 1996 the Navy launched the much delayed nuclear powered cruiser, Peter the Great, with an estimated operating cost of U.S. $50-100 million per year,(53) as well as laying the keel of the nuclear submarine Yuri Dolgoruki.(54) The Russian Navy announced in 1998 that it hoped to launch two nuclear submarines in 1999(55) and Admiral Oleg Yerofeyev indicated that Russia's building program will now focus on higher technology boats because it makes "sense to have fewer vessels but of a higher quality."(56) The Russian Navy demonstrated its operational capability in December 1997 when the Russians tested ballistic missiles from submarines in the Barents Sea.(57) All of this information supports the conclusion that severely limited Russian Navy funds have been directed towards operations and building as opposed to dealing with the waste problem.

    Though construction of new boats has fallen behind schedule(58) and operations for the Northern Fleet have declined as a result of recent troubles in the Russian economy,(59) analysts still believe that submarine and anti-submarine warfare will continue to have the "highest priority" in terms of Russia's defense expenditures.(60) Recent government documents indicate that Russia is still planning to allocate three and-a-half percent GDP for defense appropriations in the 1998-2025 period.(61) Russia has sought...

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