Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999
Chernobyl in Slow Motion - Part II
Burial at sea
In last week's instalment, we took a look at the Soviet Union's practice of using the injection method to dispose of radioactive waste underground; but the mass disposal of radioactive wastes has not been limited only to top-secret injection sites. The scope of this dilemma widens greatly when the spectre of maritime dumping is factored into the equation. In the past, the Soviet Union denied that radioactive waste material had ever been dumped. Yet, the Soviet Navy is single-handedly the greatest offender when offshore radioactive waste dumping is concerned. The Yablokov Commission, established by President Boris Yeltsin to investigate Soviet and CIS environmental practices found that Soviet and Russian disposal of radioactive wastes at sea is more than double the combined amount reportedly disposed by all other nations over the last 45 years.
The fragile ecosystem of the Arctic is in the greatest danger of radioactive contamination. Of the six Arctic bodies of water which border Russia's north, it is the waters surrounding Novaya Zemlya, the Barents and Kara seas which are the most affected by radioactive pollution. The delicate ecosystem of this area has been dealt a severe blow through decades of negligence and mismanagement. For the past 30 years, these waters have been used as nuclear "grave yards" not only for radioactive wastes but also for reactors, decommissioned nuclear-powered vessels and more recently dismantled nuclear weapons. The remoteness of the Arctic makes this area a prime dumping spot for such hazardous wastes.
Because of the region's slow regenerative process, the ecosystem of the northern seas and adjacent territories is extremely fragile - more so than the vast Far Eastern seas and the Pacific Ocean, which have also served as dumping grounds for the Soviet Navy and nuclear industry. The concentrations of radioactivity in the Arctic are twice as high as those found in the Pacific.
The Yablokov Commission estimates that since 1965, the USSR dumped a total of 2.5 million curies of contained and discharged radioactive waste into ocean waters. Among the items dumped are 16 nuclear reactors from submarines and a nuclear icebreaker in the shallow gulfs off the eastern coast of Novaya Zemlya. Seven of the reactors still contain highly radioactive nuclear fuel, while others date back to the 1960s, when more plutonium was used per reactor. In each case, the reactor core suffered damage that prevented removal of the spent nuclear fuel. To compound matters further, the amount of radioactivity in some of the reactors is seven times that released in the Chernobyl disaster.
The Russian Navy has determined that it would be more dangerous to move the radioactive waste than to leave it be. Between 1964 and 1991, it was revealed that approximately 11,000 to 17,000 containers of liquid and solid radioactive waste were dumped in the same region. Ironically, some containers were punctured to facilitate sinking. The Russian Navy's Pacific Fleet has also come under scrutiny for its dumping activities in the Sea of Japan, where the Navy sank considerable quantities of radioactive waste, including an estimated 6868 containers, 38 ships and more than 100 items.
Presently, the military is behaving as it has in the previous decades under the Soviet regime. If there is no leakage from the sunken wastes, or if the public is not aware of any environmental problem, the dilemma does not exist. The military has never placed much emphasis on radioactive waste disposal; unfortunately, the repercussions of this neglect are becoming evident. While there is awareness of the seriousness of the nuclear waste issue within the Russian Navy, little is known about the situation in the Pacific. Practically no information is available about the waters surrounding Kamchatka, and no data whatsoever has been made public regarding the disposal of solid waste, which poses the greatest danger. Currently, there are no on-shore storage and reprocessing facilities that would reduce the huge amounts of radioactivity entering the seas. During the 1960s, an attempt was made to curb this dumping practice by building a large, modern waste treatment facility in the Far East. However, the plant was never commissioned, and the equipment was subsequently stolen and used for other purposes.
Fears of a "maritime Chernobyl" are now on the rise, since sunken containers and reactor cores are prone to corrosive breakdown in seawater. Soviet scientists previously believed that the sediments on the sea floor would absorb plutonium leakage. However, it has been disclosed that strong currents could ultimately spread contaminants throughout the affected regions. Of particular concern are damaged reactor cores and submerged nuclear warheads. These solid high-level radioactive wastes pose a great danger due to their high radioactive content. The Yablokov Commission has insufficient information to assess the exact make-up of, and hence the threat posed by, the radioactive pollution from dismantled nuclear warheads submerged in the shallow waters off the eastern coast of Novaya Zemlya. Russian military officials contend that the immediate risk to humans and the Arctic ecosystem are small. They have also argued that the Kara Sea remains frozen for nine months of the year and contains little biological activity. One regional government official stated that "much of the dumped material may by now have lost much of its radioactivity, amounting to perhaps one million curies."
Officials maintain that oceanic dumping may be safer than land burial, since the potential for underground water contamination is always a possibility. However, in May and June of 1990, millions of dead starfish as well as a large number of dead whales and seals turned up north of the Severodvinsk nuclear submarine base. According the Yablokov Commission, this occurrence - coupled with a doubling in the incidents of cancer among adults and a reported six-fold rise in birth defects among infants in Arkhangelsk Oblast, which includes Severodvinsk - was strongly indicative of radioactive pollution from the military installation in this region.
During the summer of 1994, the Russian government decided to seal corroding nuclear torpedoes off the coast of Novaya Zemlya with a polymerising gel to avoid the risk of plutonium leakage - "with or without Western financing." The leaking plutonium has the potential of contaminating the Norwegian Sea for up to 700 years. These desperate actions contradict much of what the Russians have previously said and done about the issue. Clearly, there is a great risk involved with offshore dumping that cannot be underestimated, nor overlooked.
The threats to health are clearly visible in the Russian Arctic. Environmentalists and scientists claim that there has been a definite decrease in health quality over the last 15 to 20 years. Increases in mortality rates, cancer and blood and skin diseases have been reported in the Arkhangelsk Oblast. The Chukchi reindeer herders of the far north have suffered tremendously as a result of radioactive waste mismanagement. The reindeer have high concentrations of lead and cesium within their organisms. The result is that 90 per cent of Chukchi now suffer from chronic lung disease, and almost 100 percent suffer from tuberculosis. The incidences of liver cancer are ten times higher among the Chukchi than the Russian average and the death rate from cancer of the esophagus is the highest in the world.
There is an irrefutable link between oceanic radioactive waste dumping and health threats. It has been shown that radiation can spread quickly through the environment when carried by wind and water, turning up hundreds of kilometres away from its source, contaminating wildlife, plants and humans. Radioactive pollution will not respect international borders.
Time has run out
Russia can no longer continue with a "wait and see" attitude toward this problem, reacting only when the situation becomes serious. With the close of the Cold War, there will be an even greater need to safely dispose of nuclear wastes, weapons and nuclear-powered vessels in a manner that is globally acceptable yet affordable for the cash-strapped Russian government. Presently, there are some 90 older Russian nuclear submarines that have been decommissioned and approximately 50 or 60 in the Northern Fleet alone that are due for disposal over the next decade. Submarine reactors requiring disposal will amount to well over 200.
It is not surprising that there is mounting global concern over how the Russians will now deal with this dilemma inherited from the massive nuclear and military industries of the Soviet Union. Environmental researchers have argued that wastes must be located and quickly removed from the oceans and buried on land. However, this oversimplified approach fails to disclose where the funding for such a mass-scale project will come from; nor does it specify the location and possible burial sites for these dangerous materials. Even if adequate data is made available, raising the radioactive materials and disposing of them safely is likely to run in the billions of dollars. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that these practices will cease any time in the near future.
Peter Szyszlo, 30 October 1999
Next Week: Part III - Going, Going, Gone?
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