[A-List] Russia: military decay

Keaney Michael Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Wed Sep 18 05:19:44 MDT 2002

Russia says its rusting fleet could poison Arctic

Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow
Wednesday September 18, 2002
The Guardian

Russia issued a stark warning yesterday about the "dilapidated" condition of dozens of navy ships along its eastern and Arctic coasts, where tons of spent fuel from the ageing submarine fleet is stored.

In a rare insight into the Russian administration's own fears about the condition of its fleet, Viktor Akhunov, head of the department of ecology and decommissioning at Minatom, the Russian atomic energy ministry, said yesterday that corrosion on the hulls of 39 ships posed the "greatest danger" to the environment and security of the region.

Mr Akhunov told an international conference on nuclear security in the eastern port of Vladivostok that the level of security around the nuclear material was frighteningly lax, given that it could be used to make a dirty bomb, or treated to provide fuel for a nuclear device.

He declined to say which ships he was talking about or disclose their bases but he revealed that one of the ships - part of a fleet of tankers storing spent nuclear fuel - was already six years past the date when it should have been decommissioned.

According to Mr Akhunov, only 71 of the 190 submarines that have been decommissioned since the collapse of the Soviet Union have had their fuel removed, leaving more than a hundred docked and rotting along the northern Russian coast, threatening the Arctic with ecological disaster.

Two reactors have already leaked, and salvaging them could prove dangerous.

Vladimir Shishkin, chief designer of Minatom's institute for energy equipment research and design who was also at the conference, said the government planned to build a shelter to store the submarines until the fission capability in their nuclear reactors ended in about 300 years.

Russia is struggling to finance the decommissioning of its nuclear behemoths. Yesterday's warning was accompanied by the announcement that $70m (£45m) is to be allocated each year to try to improve nuclear security in the country. Yet the Russian military sees this sum as paltry.

Russia hopes to salvage 131 submarines by 2010 at a cost of $3.9bn, Mr Akhunov said, but its projects are hampered by Moscow's limited budget.

In 1997 and 1999, submarines sank due to corrosion in their hulls, but were quickly raised before environmental damage could occur.

The alarming announcement coincides with a meeting in Vienna between the US energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, and his Russian counterpart, Aleksandr Rumiantsev, to discuss nuclear cooperation. The US financing of the Russian nuclear clean-up is high on the agenda.

Minatom, which has responsibility for the clean-up, says the US would rather finance the decommissioning of Russia's more modern submarines, which could still operate, than remove the older more dangerous ones.

A senior Minatom source said: "They are thinking about reducing the military threat and not the ecological threat, and so the money is spent on the modern, third-generation nuclear missile submarines.

"It is a really serious situation now, and we need $4bn to clean up all our decommissioned submarines."

A cash-strapped Minatom is pursuing projects abroad to boost its annual budget. One involves the construction of a series of nuclear reactors in Bushehr, Iran. Russia's export of nuclear technology to a state that the US has dubbed part of an "axis of evil" has enraged the Bush administration.

Mr Abraham is likely to spend some of his time in Vienna convincing Moscow to withdraw from Bushehr, perhaps by compensating Russia for its financial loss.

More information about the A-List mailing list