By Paul Goble
During the last 30 years of Soviet power, Moscow dumped some 18,000 radioactive items in the Arctic Ocean. When retired Soviet naval captain Aleksandr Nikitin revealed that in a report for the Bellona environmental organization in 1996, he was charged with treason, although he was eventually acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court.
Now, nearly 25 years later, Rosatom has announced that over the next eight years, it will remove two entire submarines and four reactor units from the Arctic floor but says the other radioactive items pose little or no risk and will be left in place (tass.ru/ekonomika/9106663 and thebarentsobserver.com/ru/ekologiya/2020/08/v-rossiyskoy-arktike-zatopleny-neskolko-tysyach-yadernyh-obektov-teper-samye).
According to Russia’s atomic energy agency, these six objects account for 90 percent of the radioactive threat posed by the dumping in Soviet times with one of the objects, the K-27 submarine having been described by experts, The Barents Observer reports, as a potential “time bomb” as far as the release of radioactivity is concerned.
Rosatom and the European Commission say the total cost for the operation which involves raising these objects from the sea floor, decommissioning them, and permanently storing the wastes will be approximately 300 million US dollars, with Moscow paying part of the cost and EU countries the remainder (http://nuclear-submarine-decommissioning.ru/node/1260).
As global warming opens the Arctic to shipping and mining, ever more people are likely to be affected by radioactivity released from these objects. Whether Rossatom will be in fact meet its promises and whether its estimate of the lack of danger from other objects it won’t remove is credible is far from certain.
Bellona is almost certainly among the skeptics. It recently described the Norilsk oil spill as the tip of the iceberg of a variety of environmental disasters in waters adjoining the Russian mainland and said it will take a decade to address even one (bellona.ru/2020/06/05/na-vosstanovlenie-okruzhayushhej-sredy-posle-razliva-v-norilske-ujdet-minimum-10-let).
And the Norway-based environmental group warned that Moscow has a poor track record of actually overcoming such disasters, preferring instead to announce a program, declare victory and allow most of the problems, including the most troubling to remain, only to repeat this process when the next disaster happens.