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Russia: U.S. And EU Ready To Help Clean Up Radioactive Pollution

By Ben Patridge

London, 28 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. and the EU are to help Russia clean up one of the world's worst environmental hazards, radioactive pollution from some 90 decaying nuclear submarines in the Barents Sea above the Arctic Circle.

The aging submarine fleet, based on the Kola peninsula near Murmansk, threatens to contaminate the waters of Norway, Finland and Sweden. In recent years, up to a dozen submarines were simply sunk, some with their nuclear reactors still aboard.

According to reports (Los Angeles Times), the Russian navy has decommissioned dozens of the submarines but has had no money to dispose of the nuclear waste. Of the 90 rusting submarines in the region, officials say nuclear waste has been removed from only 26.

New attention has focused on the health dangers posed by the radioactive leaks because President Boris Yeltsin this week called for the dismantling and disposal of the 90 submarines.

Bowing to pressure from Norway and environmentalists, Yeltsin said: "We don't need old submarines now, especially nuclear ones." Yeltsin spoke to reporters after signing an accord with King Harald V of Norway establishing a joint clean-up program for the region.

Analysts say the scale of the problem is so immense that the clean-up will cost billions of dollars and take more than a decade.

However, help is likely to be forthcoming from both the U.S. and the EU which both recognize that hazards of this kind do not respect national borders, and threaten the global environment.

An agreement to strengthen efforts to tackle the problem of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste in Russia, including the northwest, was reached at the recent EU-Russia summit in Birmingham. The problem was also discussed at the EU-US summit in London a day later. After the London talks, President Bill Clinton told reporters that the Americans and Europeans want to help:

"We have finally agreed to work together with Russia to strengthen nuclear safety. This is also very important, especially with regard to nuclear waste removal and storage in northwest Russia."

The EU is already working with Russia to improve the safety of nuclear power stations. The EU. and U.S. are also urging Ukraine to close the Chernobyl plant, site of the world's worst nuclear accident in April, 1986. In addition, the EU's Tacis nuclear safety program aims to facilitate technical cooperation with the eastern countries.

The state of Russia's northern submarine fleet came to the world's attention largely because of a stand by a former navy captain Alexander Nikitin who said it posed a hazard.

Nikitin was arrested for high treason by Russian authorities after he worked with a Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, on a report about radioactive pollution from the decaying submarines. He spent 10 months in jail and is still awaiting trial. He is still calling for a clean-up of the pollution in the Barents Sea, although he is barred by prosecutors from leaving the St Petersburg region.

Nikitin was quoted yesterday (by the Los Angeles Times) as saying the signing of the Russian-Norwegian clean-up deal agreed with Yeltsin this week "is a great victory indeed, the victory I worked for, and the victory I am still suffering for." But Nikitin also said that the Russian-Norwegian accord had been stalled in two years of negotiations because of unreasonable Russian demands, including the desire of Russian customs officials to impose a hefty tax on clean-up equipment brought from Norway.

The joint decision by the EU. and the U.S. to help tackle the major problem of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste in the northwest Russian region was hailed of an example of growing transatlantic cooperation by EU Commission President Jacques Santer. He told a London press conference after the EU-US summit:

"Our summit today is the sixth between the EU and the US since the adoption of the new transatlantic agenda. These summits are becoming more and more important to the development of the transatlantic relationship. The basic issues we covered today, and the substantial agreements we came to, prove how worthwhile these meetings now are."