Russian History


Radioactive Contamination

Beginning with glasnost in the mid-1980s and continuing with the establishment of an independent Russia in 1991, much disturbing information has become available about Soviet and Russian nuclear practices and mishaps. These disclosures have included deadly accidents on land and aboard naval vessels, a network of secret cities designed specifically for nuclear weapons production and material processing, detonation of nuclear blasts for "peaceful" purposes, and the dumping of nuclear waste at sea and its injection into subterranean cavities.

More than any other event, the Chernobyl' disaster prompted greater scrutiny and candor about Soviet nuclear programs. Although much of the contamination from Chernobyl' occurred in the now-independent countries of Ukraine and Belarus, the present-day Russian Federation also received significant fallout from the accident. Approximately 50,000 square kilometers of the then Russian Republic, particularly the oblasts of Bryansk, Orel, Kaluga, and Tula, were contaminated with cesium-137 (see table 3, Appendix). The total population of the nineteen oblasts and republics receiving fallout from Chernobyl' was 37 million in 1993.

The Soviet, now Russian, navy's disposal and accidental venting of radioactive materials pose particular problems. Beginning in 1965, twenty nuclear reactors, most with their fuel rods still inside, were dumped from nuclear submarines and an icebreaker into the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. In 1994 the Oslo-based Bellona Foundation estimated that radioactive dumping in the Kara Sea north of western Siberia and adjacent waters constituted two-thirds of all the radioactive materials that ever have entered the world's oceans. In 1996 Bellona identified fifty-two decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines that were scheduled for scrapping but were still afloat near Murmansk with nuclear fuel on board; a timetable for dismantling them has fallen far behind.

Japan has been engaged in a long struggle to stop Russia's Pacific Fleet from dumping radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan (see Japan, ch. 8). In 1994 Russia complied with Japan's demand to cease dumping entirely; after a long series of negotiations, in January 1996 Russia and Japan agreed on construction of a floating nuclear waste recycling plant and expansion of an existing facility to process nuclear waste generated by the Pacific Fleet. The United States and Japan are to fund the first project, and the United States and Norway the second. In the mid-1990s, Russia still was seeking methods of storing and disposing of first-generation radioactive waste in many regions, including the European Arctic. Under these conditions, experts predict that the country will be hard-pressed to comply with the requirements of the arms reduction agreements for disposal of waste from thousands of nuclear weapons scheduled for destruction later in the 1990s (see Nuclear Arms Issues, ch. 9). On the eve of the Group of Seven (G-7; see Glossary) nuclear safety summit meeting in Moscow in April 1996, Aleksey Yablokov and the Bellona Foundation complained that continued operation of Chernobyl'-type reactors presented an unacceptable risk to the Russian public. The Western leaders at the G-7 meeting generally muted their criticism on the issue to avoid embarrassing President Boris N. Yeltsin during his presidential campaign. Yablokov announced the formation of a new lobby of Russian nongovernmental organizations for greater government disclosure on the issue.