London, 9 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A top-level seminar on nuclear hazards in Russia has been told that it will cost nearly $100 billion over several decades to scrap decommissioned, Soviet-era nuclear-powered submarines.
The estimate, described by one British official as "horrendous," was presented last week to a closed-door nuclear clean-up seminar attended by Russian, Scandinavian, U.S. and British officials at London's Foreign Office.
A British report said a serious accident with a submarine reactor could release as much as 10 percent of the radioactive particles and gasses that escaped in the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.
The seminar focused on the serious threat posed by nuclear waste to the environment of northwest Russia, the site of hundreds of nuclear reactors and thousands of spent nuclear fuel elements.
Along with government officials, the meeting was also attended by nuclear clean-up experts and industrialists. The Russian delegation was headed by Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Nicolai Egorov and Murmansk Regional Governor Yuri Yevdokimov.
The seminar focused on radioactive contamination in northwest Russia first highlighted by former navy captain Aleksandr Nikitin. He was arrested in 1996 and charged with treason, a capital offense, because of research for a Norwegian environmental group, Bellona.
(The trial of Nikitin began on October 20 this year but the judge dismissed all evidence presented in the indictment and referred the case back to the prosecution for further investigation.)
The London seminar, which received little media attention, was one of the most comprehensive examinations of the problem to date. One diplomatic source said: "We are having all these meetings now because of Nikitin. He really got things going in a big way."
A Foreign Office briefing paper said the area surrounding Murmansk, the Kola Peninsula, Severodvinsk and the island of Novaya Zemlya contains 300 nuclear reactors (20 percent of the world's total) and tens of thousands of spent nuclear fuel elements.
Scientists are worried by the lack of plans for dealing with the nuclear reactors of the decommissioned submarines, a lack of reprocessing facilities, and the lack of safe storage facilities for spent fuel and radioactive wastes from their reactors. The condition of nuclear power plants in the region is also causing concern.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia inherited a large fleet of nuclear-powered vessels. The fleet included warships and submarines belonging to the navy's Northern and Pacific Fleets as well as civilian icebreakers. Combined, they contained some 449 nuclear reactors.
According to a report by Itar-Tass last May, 95 nuclear submarines of the Northern Fleet have been taken out of operation, but reactor cores have been removed from only 26 of them. At least nine submarine reactor compartments, each with two reactors, are stored afloat at submarine bases in the Kola Peninsula.
Large numbers of the submarines no longer in use are now laid up around Russia's northern coastline. The British report says: "Many are in a poor state of repair, and concern has been expressed about the risk of radioactive release into the atmosphere or seas."
Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Egorov told ITAR-TASS in May that Russia will need 5 to 10 years to solve the problem of radioactive waste from serving and decommissioned subs in the Northern Fleet.
But the British report quotes experts as saying that even if the Russian authorities were prepared and able to foot the astronomic cost, the "work would take 30-40 years to complete." It adds: "The costs are enormous: the cost of decommissioning one submarine can amount to $4 million; and it is estimated to cost up to $100 million every year to keep submarines afloat."
The report estimates the total cost of scrapping all the submarines now out of service at nearly $100 billion. Scrapping includes cleaning up the mostly low-level radioactive contamination from the submarines and building and improving storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel.
The experts say that in the event of an explosion or meltdown on board one of the decommissioned submarines, there would likely be a large release of radioactivity. Such a release would cause local contamination, and pose a serious health risk to the people living near the scene.
The international community is cooperating by providing funds for the clean-up of nuclear hazards across Russia. In one example, Russia, Norway and the U.S. signed the Arctic Military Environment Cooperation agreement in September 1996, to upgrade nuclear waste treatment in Murmansk. The U.S. and Norway are contributing millions of dollars toward the cost of scrapping old submarines.
The London seminar identified two problems: Russian reluctance to give Westerners access to military facilities, although that situation is improving, and the need for Western agencies to be given exemption from liability in the event of clean-up accidents. The seminar also discussed the need for Western agencies to be given tax exemptions.
But the priority was clear: more outside assistance is needed to help Moscow tackle nuclear waste disposal and contamination, particularly since it lacks the cash to deal with the problem itself.