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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Waste Storage Facility on Novaya Zemlya

Helsinki Hufvudstadsbladet 1 Apr 97 p 8
Report by Katarina Koivisto

Russian plans for a terminal storage facility for various kinds of radioactive waste on Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Sea are beginning to take shape. Technical studies of the group of islands have begun, and researchers now hope for ongoing funding in order to be able to complete their project.

"The problem of radioactive waste of various types in northern Russia is probably well-known at present," said Nikolay Lobanov, laboratory chief at the VNIPI [expansion unknown] Promtekhnologi research institute in Moscow. "If we build a terminal storage facility on Novaya Zemlya, we will in any case avoid having to transport waste over long distances." Over the years, Novaya Zemlya has managed to become both known and unknown for all the nuclear weapons testing that was carried out there in the Soviet era, and for the radioactive dumping which took place around the group of islands in both Soviet and Russian times. The first dumping is documented as early as 1960, and since then Novaya Zemlya has functioned as a kind of radioactive dumping ground.

At the Moscow institute the possibilities of terminal storage on Novaya Zemlya of radioactive waste from the northern fleet, among others, are being discussed. There are no plans to build a terminal storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from Russian nuclear power plants, as the Arctic fleet already makes major demands, Lobanov said. There are radioactive problems of various kinds along the entire Arctic coast. "We are fighting hard to get ongoing funding for our project," he said. There is actually a Russian federal program for terminal storage of waste, but it does not yet guarantee money.

Very Polluted

According to this program, it should at any rate be possible to make a decision on a future terminal storage facility in the Arctic Sea before the year 2005.

According to Nikolay Lobanov, Novaya Zemlya is already so polluted with radiation that the area is well-suited for terminal storage as well. "It will never become a good recreation area," he smiled ironically. The Moscow institute at which Lobanov works was established to prevent radiation knowledge from disappearing from Russia. Funded by both the EU and the United States, the institute conducts nuclear research for peaceful purposes. Finland also takes some part in its funding by participating in financing projects that are in Finland's interest. Finnish support will also gradually be channeled through the EU.

Dumped Reactors and Nuclear Testing

The area around Novaya Zemlya is already radioactively polluted. Among other things, 13 nuclear reactors from nuclear vessels have been dumped in the waters around the group of islands; six of them had spent fuel on board. All the reactors came from submarines that had experienced nuclear accidents on board. Three reactors from the nuclear icebreaker Lenin are also lying in the Kara Sea off the island cluster.

Russian experts have studied emissions from the dumped reactors, but it has been impossible to obtain any reliable results. US and Russian experts believe that radioactivity in the area is considerably higher than Russian reports indicate.

There have been over 130 nuclear explosions in the military testing area on Novaya Zemlya, of which 80 were above ground, about 10 in surface water, and the rest underground. The last test took place as recently as 1990.

According to Lobanov, it is not only the previous radioactive experiments that make Novaya Zemlya so suitable as a terminal storage facility. The permafrost makes storage secure, and the pollution there can hardly become much worse.

Disagree on Suitability

The first stage now includes concrete plans for the building project and research on how the waste should be isolated. Lobanov could not yet give exact costs for the project.

Not everyone is equally convinced that Novaya Zemlya is suitable for terminal storage of radioactive waste. At the Russian radiation protection agency Gosatomnadsor, Deputy Managing Director Aleksandr Dimitriyev thinks that terminal storage in permafrost is not entirely without dangers. "Think of the greenhouse effect; the climate is becoming warmer all the time; what will we do if the ice begins to melt," he asked. In addition, it will be impossible to use the area as a military testing ground if we put radioactive waste into terminal storage there," he said.

At Gosatomnadzor people would rather talk about a terminal storage facility in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. This terminal storage facility is still in the planning stage, and there are as yet no timetable or any more concrete plans. And the facilities are not comparable, Dimitriyev said, because it is a question of terminal storage for different purposes. "Our storage facility on Novaya Zemlya is beginning to take concrete shape," said Lobanov, who also did not think there was any basis for comparison. The only thing that worries him is that he is not really sure that the funding plan will hold and that the project really has ongoing financing.


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