Russia's Nuclear Waste Problem

One of the things I had wanted to talk to Cheryl Rofer about today was an article I came across a couple of days ago in the Eurasian Review which had some scary facts and figures about the post-Soviet mess of nuclear waste in the North West Region of Russia, which includes the Murmansk and Archangelsk Oblasts (provinces), the Novaya Zemlya Territory (Okrug) and the White, Barents and Kara Seas. The area “contains the largest concentration of fissile, radioactive and nuclear materials for either military or civilian application found anywhere on the planet”, says the article by Richard Rousseau – and most of it is badly maintained, in rusting containment and slowly but surely leaking out.

Among the risks: four nuclear power plants, a half dozen nuke-powered icebreakers that use 90% (bomb level) enriched uranium in their 14 reactors, 5 storage vessels full of radioactive waste, a storage facility that “hosts 21,000 spent fuel rods, equivalent to approximately 90 nuclear reactors, as well as thousands of tons radioactive liquid waste stored in decrepit stainless-steel containers”, a sub base that acts as a storage for 17 rusting nuclear-powered subs and 800 spent fuel assemblies for them. All told “the volume of radioactive material on the Kola Peninsula is equivalent to about 150 nuclear reactors and thousands of tons of depleted uranium and plutonium.”

In addition to the threat of radioactive pollution, the level of ”œconventional” pollution is also very high in that re-ion, principally due to airborne chemical pollution from the mining, steel and metallurgical industries.

Unfortunately Russia has a historically dismal record of nuclear accidents and has never adequately demonstrated a capacity to cope efficiently and effectively with environmental emergencies. The risks of accidents on the Kola Peninsula are considerable and these could directly affect the Arctic and Scandinavian countries. The next radioactive toxic cloud formed on the Kola Peninsula might easily drift over Central Europe and the northern coast of Canada and even reach the United States.

I asked Cheryl, who worked on nuclear clean-ups at Los Alamos and in Estonia, if it was really as bad there as the article said it was. Apparently, yes it is: although we don’t have to worry about multiple Chernobyl or Fukishima-style meltdowns we still should worry about massive long-term leakage of radiation into the environment. And, says Cheryl, the Russians get more reluctant every year to let foreigners help them clean up the mess even though they don’t have the funds or the expertise to do the job themselves.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I was meaning to pass this article along, human and environmental disasters just waiting to happen:

    Missing Nukes Fuel Terror Concern as Obama Drawn to Seoul
    By Jonathan Tirone – Mar 22, 2012 6:41 PM CT

    The second global conference ever on nuclear material that has escaped state control is drawing President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Nuclear violators Iran and North Korea won’t be there.

    The legacy of the Soviet Union’s breakup, inadequate atomic stockpile controls and the proliferation of nuclear-fuel technology mean the world may be awash with unaccounted-for weapons ingredients, ripe to be picked up by terrorists.

    “If material is loose, it may already be impossible to contain or account for it,” said Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s international security program and a former nuclear-security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. “There are no precise figures for how much high-enriched uranium or plutonium is missing.”

    About 50 heads of state will attend the Nuclear Security Summit on March 26-27 in Seoul. Iran and North Korea, which are in violation of United Nations resolutions requiring them to halt their nuclear work, are among countries excluded from the summit because of organizers’ desire to reach consensus. So are potential transit countries such as Moldova and Lebanon that smugglers may target to move nuclear material.

    With security officials still seeking the most basic information about how much high-enriched uranium and plutonium has been lost or is unaccounted-for, leaders meeting in Seoul may have to settle for modest measures to protect their populations from the risk of a terrorist obtaining a nuclear weapon, Allison said. Even a small blast would cause enormous casualties and disrupt the world economy.

    more at Bloomberg

    Always keep an open mind and a compassionate heart. ~ Phil Jackson

  • It would appear that the global community is counting on the natural decay of the weapons grade material produced years ago from being employed in a makeshift nuclear fission weapon. Of course, that still allows for some form of dirty bomb being used by those fearless around still dangerous fissile material.

  • We are really not that much better here. Attempts to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have for the most part failed. As a result the Columbia River south of Hanford is the most radioactive river in the world.

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