Monday, March 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia to Pump Gas Where Soviets Set Off Nuclear Explosion

Paul Goble

Baku, March 10 – Over the objections of environmentalists and local residents, a Russian company has received preliminary approval to pump gas out of the Kumzha field in the Nenets Autonomous District, where in 1981, Soviet officials attempted to block an uncontrolled release of natural gas by detonating a nuclear device.
According to a Regnum news agency report today that was picked up by “The Barents Observer,” officials in Arkhangelsk and Moscow have given the SN Invest company the right to begin production there despite oft-expressed ecological concerns ( and
Yevgeny Volkov, a representative of that firm, told Regnum that extraction from the Kumzha field, as it is known, will be “far safer” than critics have claimed. The latter say that the Soviet use of a nuclear device there contaminated the gas and that any pumping would harm surface water and the surrounding national park.
At the same time, Volkov acknowledged, there are potential environmental issues, and his company will spend up to one billion rubles (42 million U.S. dollars) to do what he called “an environmental upgrade” of the region so that no flora or fauna would be harmed.
That a Russian company would be interested in developing this field -- which is located some 60 kilometers north of Naryan-Mar, the Nenets capital -- is no surprise. It is estimated to contain more than 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas, most of it high quality.
According to the reports, SN Invest says it will convert what it extracts into liquefied natural gas and hire as many as 750 people in the region to do the work. The SN Invest says it wants to turn the Kumzha gas into LNG. The whole project, the firm said, will create 750 new jobs there.
That prospect will do little to mollify criticism on ecological or political grounds. Indeed, it is possible that as this project goes forward and the company must do some additional environmental impact studies, ecological activists from across the Russian Federation and Scandinavia and ethnic activists among the Nenets will try to block it.
This case has a long history. On May 25, 1981, the Soviet authorities detonated a nuclear device with an estimated yield of 37.6 kilotons – several times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – at a depth of 1500 meters in an effort to block the release of gas from this field.
After that explosion, Soviet officials closed off the area, but ecologists say that some radioactivity has seeped out into the surrounding territory and harmed wildlife there, and they fear that any drilling could release more, although SN Invest officials insist that radiation levels will not rise to a point to threaten anyone.
Neither environmentalists, especially those in nearby Scandinavian countries, nor the Nenets, an ethnic community whose environmental concerns Russian officials have typically ignored and one whose territory Moscow is trying to force to amalgamate with Arkhangelsk oblast, are likely to be persuaded by such assurances.
And there is thus a very real possibility that the two will join forces, with the attention the Scandinavians are certain to devote to the Kumzha field making it more likely that the Nenets people will despite the defeats they have suffered up to now have a far better chance of defending their homeland.

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