Friday, April 23, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Mishandling of Radioactive Materials Accelerating Demise of Russia’s Arctic Population

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 23 – The dying off of the numerically small peoples of the Russian north, already taking place because of economic development and climate change, is being accelerated by the mishandling of nuclear materials at power stations and military bases in that region and especially by the lack of secure storage facilities for nuclear wastes there.
In a study of this problem published this week, Sergey Rykov says that the impact of radiation on the lives of these nationalities is so great that it is time to think about creating a Red Book not just for animals and plants but for threatened and now disappearing peoples like the Yukagirs, the Ens, and the Negidals, each of which numbers fewer than 1,000 people.
Many people have written about the way in which the economic development of the Russian North and climate changes have affected these peoples in a negative way, Rykov says, but few have focused on the ways in which radioactive materials are killing off these peoples (
In the waters off the Kola Peninsula, there are ships which “up to now are used for storing radioactive wastes and spent nuclear fuel.” Some of these are only “two kilometers” from places where people live. As a result, “drinking water brings death,” although few are prepared to talk about it, and many residents do not even know they are at risk.
Murmansk oblast, Rykov continues, has the largest number of nuclear reactors per person “not only for Russia as a whole but even for the entire world.” There are 123 nuclear ships in the Northern Fleet, with a total of 235 reactors. In addition, there are nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations.
What is making the current situation especially serious, Rykov says, is the processing of decommissioning nuclear-powered ships there and in the Far East. On the Kola Peninsula alone, there are now a minimum of five “dumps” where spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste are being deposited, often with little concern to the surround environment or population.
That situation, he adds, is multiplied by dozens if not hundreds of similar dumps across the Russian North, dumps that have been placed for the convenience of the ministries and enterprises that use the fuel rather than for the security of the numerically small peoples who live in this already harsh region.
The way in which such radioactive wastes works to kill off these peoples is both direct and indirect. Directly, people are exposed to radiation, but more often, they eat fish or consume other foods and water that contains radioactive nuclides – or they are forced to change their diets because nuclear contamination has destroyed part of the food chain on which they rely.
In addition, Rykov says, there is radiation from the 116 nuclear explosions that the Soviet government set off for “economic” purposes. “The overwhelming portion [of these explosions] was in the areas of the North and in the Arctic region of Russia.” Now radiation from these, especially from explosions on the Kola Peninsula, Novaya Zemlya and in the Kars and Barents Sea, are affecting the food chain and hence survival of the numerically small peoples there.
And when Russian officials have sought to bury nuclear wastes, Vitaly Shelest, an academic who advises the Duma’s Committee on Problems of the North, they have so badly marked the location on the maps that it is no longer possible to identify just where the nuclear materials are, increasing the possibility of a serious accident and more leaks.
Rykov concludes his article by asking “what must be done to save the Russian North?” First of all, he suggests, Russian officials need to “look at a map and understand that Russia is a northern power! And stop thinking of the North as a raw materials supplier for the rest of Russia. The infrastructure of the North must be preserved.”
That will require “cleansing the North of the nuclear wastes” that Soviet and Russian officials have left there. But it will require much more: The water supply must be cleared up so that there will never again be a case as there was in Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District where the rivers were so contaminated that they actually burned.
Doing so will be extremely difficult and expensive, Rykov acknowledges. But the failure of the Russian powers that be to do so will have even higher costs. As Lomonosov wrote so long ago, “Russia will be a great power so long as it has its extremely wealthy North – and as long as it is in a position to control it.”

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