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Russia: Environmental Controversy Brews Over Radioactive Pollution

  • Ben Partridge

London, 29 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's environmental record is under scrutiny again following the controversy over radioactive pollution from its fleet of 90 aging nuclear submarines based on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk.

President Boris Yeltsin this week called for the dismantling and disposal of the decaying submarines after signing an accord with Norway that establishes a joint clean-up program for the region.

The program to remove nuclear waste from the Barents Sea area and to dispose of it safely will cost thousands of millions of dollars and last more than a decade. The US and EU have pledged to help.

Reports say, in the Soviet era, a dozen worn-out submarines were simply sunk in the Barents Sea, some with their nuclear reactors still aboard. Many of the remaining hulks still hold nuclear waste.

The Barents Sea threatens to join a long list of environmental disasters in the former Soviet Union that has led to the poisoning of air, water and land; contributed to cancer, respiratory and other diseases; and has helped cut average life expectancy.

The Kyshtym explosion in the Urals, the Virgin Lands disaster in Kazakhstan, the poisoning of the Caspian Sea -- all are testament to the careless treatment of nature by Soviet-era planners.

Historically, this attitude has its roots in the development-at-all-costs imperative that guided Stalin in his efforts to modernize the Soviet Union at breakneck speed. A common view of the Bolshevik revolutionaries was that 'old nature' must be torn down and remade, a view expressed at a Siberian writers' congress in 1926: "Let the green fragile breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armor of cities, armed with the stone muzzles of factory chimneys, and girded with iron belts of railroads. Let the taiga be burned, let the steppes be trampled. Only in cement and iron can the fraternal union of all peoples, the iron brotherhood of man be forged."

The showpiece of Stalin's efforts was the refashioning of the Volga River linking it by canals and enlarged rivers with the Caspian, as well as to the White and Baltic seas. Only later scientists realized the scheme had caused immense environmental damage.

Khrushchev inherited Stalin's careless attitude to nature. His Virgin Lands experiment aimed to turn vast areas of steppe in Kazakhstan and western Siberia into a major bread-producing region. But the topsoil of millions of acres of land blew away in huge dust storms, reaching as far as European Russia.

A landmark book, "Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union", which circulated in samizdat in the 1980s, revealed that the extent of environmental damage was far worse than scholars realized.

The book, written by a producer of Soviet science films who used the pseudonym, Boris Komarov, said mining, logging, dumping and erosion had laid waste to 10 percent of land in the Soviet Union. He wrote of inland rivers and seas drying up; of rivers poisoned by industrial effluents; of dwindling fish stocks and lost cropland.

Largely because of air pollution, lung cancer doubled between the 1960s and 1980s. The small sea of Azov, adjoining the Black Sea, became a "latrine" because of oil pollution. The unique ecosystem of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake (holding one-fifth of the world's fresh water) was being destroyed by chemical effluents.

The Komarov book contributed to the formation of a grass-roots environmental movement, made up of ecologists, scientists and writers, which united around the need to protect "Mother Russia."

This lobby won some major victories. It persuaded planners to fit waste filtration plants at Lake Baikal, and to order logging to cease. It forced the Gorbachev-era government to drop grandiose plans to divert the northward flow of the great Siberian rivers to irrigate Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia to the south. It strongly protested the April, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

But old attitudes die hard. Former navy captain Alexander Nikitin, who helped bring the world's attention to the latest problem of radioactive pollution in the Barents Sea, was charged with treason by Russian authorities, and spent 10 months in jail. His offense? He worked with Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group, on a report about the submarine fleet's nuclear hazards. Environmentalists applaud what they see as Nikitin's principled stand. But not Russian authorities. Today, Nikitin still awaits trial and is barred from leaving the St. Petersburg region.