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Russia: Norway's King To Discuss Safe Disposal Of Nuclear Waste

Moscow, 26 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Norway's King Harald V arrived in Moscow yesterday, saying he was "hopeful" an agreement could be signed to help with the safe disposal of nuclear submarine waste at Russian Northern Fleet bases. On a state visit that will also take him to St Petersburg and Murmansk, King Harald said the way Russia deals with nuclear waste is "very important" to Oslo.

Norway, which has a 181-km border with Russia, has repeatedly voiced concern over environmental threats presented by the growing number of the fleet's decommissioned submarines.

RFE/RL in Moscow reports that red tape and technological differences are hindering a major international project to clean up hazardous nuclear waste at the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet.

The project was initiated by the British company Nuclear Fuels two years ago, but little has been done so far, as its representatives remain unable to visit the Northern Fleet facility in Andreyev Bay on the Kola peninsula.

Nuclear Fuels is one of four European firms which have a formed a partnership, dubbed Industrial Group, to try clean up this port of last call for dozens of the Northern Fleet's submarines. The port is located just 40 kms away from Russia's border with Norway.

Also participating in the multi-million-dollar project are SKB of Sweden, SGN of France and Kvaerner Maritime of Norway.

Officials at Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry said late last week that representatives of the Industrial Group would be allowed to visit the bay, as soon as they undergo security clearance. The ministry's chief spokesman, Georgii Kaurov, said the ministry welcomes all self-financed efforts to help. But Kaurov added that his ministry must first be certain that such companies aim to deal, as he put it, "With ecology and not intelligence."

Despite the current lack of access, the Industrial Group has already invested $ 1 million in a feasibility study. The study is to determine the safest and most efficient way to transport and store all the Andreyev Bay waste at the Mayak nuclear waste-processing complex for the next 40 years. The group plans to fund construction of an all-new, dry-storage facility on the premises of this complex, located hundreds of kms southeast of Andreyev Bay in the Urals region.

Both Mayak managers and Atomic Ministry officials argue, however, that it would be more efficient to complete construction of a liquid-storage facility. Mayak started to build this facility a decade ago, but lacks the funds to finish it.

Norway's Bellona environmental group strongly opposes the plan to transport the Andreyev Bay waste to the Mayak, saying it would take anywhere between 300-and-400 million dollars and 15 years. Bellona says it would be much cheaper and safer to build a storage facility right on the Kola peninsula.

Meanwhile, RFE/RL Moscow reports the Atomic Energy Ministry is currently busy assuming responsibility for the disposal of decommissioned nuclear submarines from the Navy.

According to Bellona environmental activists, the Russian fleet has decommissioned more than 130 nuclear submarines, including 88 of the Northern Fleet. Bellona says at least 60 percent of the decommissioned subs still have spent nuclear fuel inside their rusting hulls, as they remain floating for as much as ten years, waiting to be dismantled.

Russian officials say they lack the funds to dispose quickly and safely of this floating hazard on their own.