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Russian region where submarine caught fire is world's atomic dustbin
Friday, 30 December 2011 16:52

The bleak area around Murmansk is a dumping ground for nuclear waste, some of it leaking and dangerous

The desolate region around Murmansk where the Russian submarine Yekaterinburg caught fire contains the biggest concentration of old nuclear reactors in the world and, since the cold war ended, has become the world's atomic dustbin.

When I was there 10 years ago, the shorelines around Murmansk were littered with more than 100 rusting nuclear hulks, most in a dangerous condition and many 40-50 years old. It is expected to take 50 years and billions of dollars to clean up.

Murmansk is home to the old Soviet Union's northern fleet of nuclear submarines, many of Russia's atom-powered icebreakers and several 40-year-old civil reactors.

Alexander Ruzankin, head of economic development for the Murmansk region, says it has around 200 working nuclear reactors and 20,000 separate stores of waste, ranging from containers full of radioactive water to decrepit buildings full of fuel rods.

Nearly 20% of the world's reactors and nuclear fuel is concentrated in the region. A few obsolete nuclear submarines are decommissioned each year with the help of US and Norwegian aid, but the nuclear legacy is growing as Germany and former Soviet states send their radioactive research reactors and nuclear waste there for decommissioning and eventual shipment to the Urals.

Many of the stores are in a dangerous condition and are leaking water and radioactive substances into the soil and water.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the sea of Murmansk was used as a dump site for exhausted cores from Soviet nuclear reactors and the nearby island of Nova Zemlaya was the site of more than 130 nuclear test explosions in Soviet times.

Andreeva Bay near Murmansk is the biggest single storage site for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear-powered vessels. More than 22,000 spent fuel rods, 93 nuclear reactor cores and 35 tonnes of liquid nuclear radioactive have been dumped there.

John Vidal

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