Warming Climate Ruins Plans for Russian Arctic Nuclear Dump

MOSCOW, Russia, August 8, 2003 (ENS) - Global warming has been instrumental in Russia's decision not to construct a nuclear waste storage facility on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. The decision puts an end to plans Russia has been formulating for more than a decade.

The thawing of the island's permafrost as the Earth's climate warms over the next 150 to 200 years could permit leakage of the radioactive materials that were to be stored there, the Atomic Energy Ministry said in a statement late last month.

Novaya Zemlya

The Arctic island Novaya Zemlya is frozen now, but a warming climate could melt the icy permafrost. (Photo courtesy NASA)
The geological repository was planned for the disposal of low to medium level radioactive waste from nuclear submarines currently stored at various sites in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy inherited more than 100 rundown nuclear submarines that had served 20 to 30 years and needed to be scrapped. Spent nuclear fuel from the Northern Fleet and the civilian nuclear icebreaker fleet has been stored in temporary storage facilities on land or on board various vessels since the early 1960s.

The Atomic Energy Ministry had approved the construction of a US$70 million nuclear waste storage facility on Novaya Zemlya in June 2002.

A 2001 report of more than 200 pages written by nuclear experts from Norway, the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Great Britain declared Novaya Zemlya ecologically sound for the storage of low and medium level waste burial, even in the presence of the sub-critical nuclear explosions, according to the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian nuclear watchdog organization. Bellona staff, who studied the report, confirmed this.

Subcritical nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya have been conducted to assess the condition of plutonium of various ages in Russia' stockpiled nuclear warheads. Tests are considered subcritical when a nuclear chain reaction is not triggered.

The Russian Research Institute of Industrial Technology spent 10 years and $2 million to develop the design of the future storage facility on Novaya Zemlya.

In May 2002, Russian anti-nuclear campaigners warned that leaks might occur at Novaya Zamlya if a nuclear dump were constructed there. "Ecodefense is greatly concerned over possibilities of radiation leaks to the environment if dumping site on Novaya Zemlya constructed, even if plan looks safe on the paper," said Vladimir Slivyak of Ecodefense.

Recently, scientists and geologists who conducted an analysis of potential changes to the region's climate as global warming accelerates came to the conclusion that rising temperatures could thaw the region's permafrost, which might lead to radioactive leaks.

Russia's Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said that the Atomic Energy Ministry is looking into building a storage facility in a remote part of the Kola Peninsula instead.

Still, Novaya Zemlya is contaminated with radioactivity. From 1955 to 1990, the Soviet Union conducted 130 nuclear tests - 88 atmospheric, 39 underground, and three underwater tests - at Novaya Zemlya. The Soviet Union/Russia has not conducted a nuclear test since October 24, 1990.