ACCORDING to ecology experts, extensive nuclear testing and largescale secret dumping of radioactive wastes in the far north have transformed the Barents and Kara seas in the Russian Arctic into what are probably the most polluted waterbodies on Earth.
For over 3 decades now, the 750 km-long Novaya-Zemlya archipelago and the seas around it have been used as a nuclear dustbin. Scientists have disclosed that more than 11,000 containers of atomic waste as well as 15 faulty reactors from superannuated nuclear submarines were unceremoniously bundled into the 2 seas.
"The cost of cleaning up this mess is inestimable," says Russian Greenpeace official Sada Akhsartova. "We still don't have an accurate picture of the extent of radioactive pollution in the region." The 1993 Yablokov Report, a government commission enquiry, put the radioactivity released by solid nuclear waste in the Arctic at a whopping 2.3 million curies.
The problem, as usual, lies with money. "As compared to the funds promised to other sectors of the economy," says Akhsartova," it will be comparatively inexpensive to help build facilities for the safe storage of nuclear waste." "For instance, just 10 million roubles would help upgrade and expand Atomflot, the nuclear fuel reprocessing unit in Murmansk."
The greatest danger to marine ecology comes from at least 6 damaged, spent-fuel reactors buried in the seas. Belying its name, spent fuel is horrendously toxic, containing longlived substances including Cesium-137 and Strontium-90. The Russian navy insists that all the containers are hermetically sealed, but tests show that the quality of sealing is suspect.
Further, Steel-3, a longlasting nuclear waste casing, corrodes within 20-30 years. This period is sufficient for radionuclides, with a half life of 3 years or so, to disappear; as for Cesium and Strontium, which have half lives of 28 and 30 years respectively, they could well infiltrate the marine environment. "These are biologically fertile zones," says Akhsartova, "and even a tiny leak could put the area out of bounds for fishing for hundreds of years."
The Russian navy still generates upto 6,000 cubic metres of solid waste and 20,000 cubic metres of liquid waste every year. Solid radioactive waste is even now being collected in bins in open areas or on board special ships. This has given rise to fears that unsanctioned dumping may still be on. Russia is a signatory to the 1992 Rio declaration and 2 conventions (the Baltic and the Black Sea), forbidding the dumping of radioactive waste at sea.
The cold war may be over but one of its many deadly legacies lives on at sea in the form of a large number of nuclear-powered ships that are being decommissioned today. Joshua Handler, Greenpeace coordinator for the Nuclear Free Seas campaign, says that some of the decommissioned nuclear submarines of the Northern fleet have been sitting in harbours for as long as 15 years, in close proximity to residential areas.
Both the Yablokov Report and independent researchers confirm that not only have the terms of the 1972 London Convention on Radioactive Waste Disposal been violated but that Russia has also disregarded the recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA Safety Series require a minimum burial depth of 4,000 metres, but there are instances of dumping in the Barents Sea at sites 20 metres deep. There is a real danger of radioactive waste washing ashore and fisherfolk being exposed to radiation from liquid wastes or partially submerged radioactive objects.
In 1982, a Soviet-Norwegian joint venture discovered that radioactivity levels in the Barents Sea were 5-7 times higher than general levels in the Arctic. Radioactive elements have nosed their way into the soil in the north far above the permissible dose.
There is also evidence that nuclear pollution has insidiously entered the seawater-plankton-fish marine web, and indirectly the human organism. Death rates among the coastal Eskimos, who subsist mainly on a diet of fish and reindeer meat, are thrice as high as the country's average. Naturalists studying the pinnipeds of the Barents and White seas confirmed cases of radiation-origin disease and changes in the blood systems of the animals.
Greenpeace and other environmental organisations are calling for the elimination of nuclear power from all seabound vessels. Indeed, a 2-pronged programme is in order: joint action for scrapping nuclear powered submarines; and aid to Russia to create monitored land storage.
Sujata Rao is a freelance journalist based in Moscow