The most dangerous place on the planet

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The Independent Online
FOR A few hours last May, the long-prophesied day of nuclear judgement seemed to have arrived on the Kola Peninsula. Rumours swept Severomorsk, base of the Russian Northern Fleet, that a Delta-class submarine, carrying a dozen missiles, had suffered a major accident in the Barents Sea.

The story soon reached Murmansk, 15 miles south, where policemen were told to take iodine tablets and schools were closed. Calm was restored only after the regional governor and naval officers held a press conference to say no one was in danger and that what had happened was a scheduled exercise, testing reaction to a nuclear incident aboard a submarine. But was it? "We are confident there was an explosion or some other incident in one of the submarine's rocket shafts," says Thomas Nilsen, a researcher for Bellona, the Norwegian environmental pressure group monitoring nuclear goings-on in the area.

"The `exercise' was a cover-up for the incident." First, he argues, such exercises are flagged well in advance, to avoid such rumours. Of this one, however, there had not been a word. Second, the Norwegian military two days later did confirm that a Russian submarine had surfaced hurriedly on 5 May before heading to a nearby base. Third, not a single Northern Fleet submarine went on patrol for three months thereafter.

But the biggest reason for suspicion is the most obvious of all. The Kola Peninsula is a nuclear accident waiting to happen; in environmental terms probably the most dangerous place on Earth. Between them the Northern Fleet, nuclear cargo vessels and icebreakers based at Murmansk and the Kola nuclear station account for 18 per cent of all nuclear reactors on Earth, and a fair proportion of their spent fuel.

In Murmansk, near the heart of a city of 500,000, is the Lepse cargo ship, carrying hundreds of damaged nuclear fuel elements, on which, after years of negotiation, Norway, France and the European Union are to start a clean-up with the Russians. But nothing comes close to Andreyeva Bay, in a fiord 30 miles from the border with Norway.

There, 21,000 spent fuel rods - equivalent to 90 reactor cores - and 13,000 cubic metres of solid and liquid radioactive waste are housed in concrete tanks and rusting containers open to the elements. Like little Chernobyls in slow motion, their contents are leaking into the river and sea.

Between them the Soviet Union and Russia built 250 nuclear submarines. Now, as a result of arms agreements, the end of the Cold War and Russia's economic collapse, only 70 or 80 are in any kind of service. Some of the others were destroyed. More, however, are rotting at Andreyeva Bay and other sites around the Kola Peninsula. And, secretive as ever, the Russians do not want anyone to see.

British Nuclear Fuels, with French and Norwegian companies, has signed a preliminary deal on a clean-up plan at Andreyeva Bay.

But all requests for on-site inspections have been turned down: the most the Russians will offer is a video. No Westerner has been allowed to Andreyeva Bay. Unfortunately for the environmental movement, a mile away across the fiord lies Nerpichya, base for six 30,000-ton Typhoon-class submarines, pride of the Northern Fleet, each carrying 200 strategic nuclear warheads - and emphatically not for foreign eyes to behold.

Their presence is why Russia probably will not accept an invitation from Nato to join a Partnership for Peace exercise in the Barents Sea next summer - and why nothing looks likely to happen very quickly at Andreyeva Bay.

Norway has freed 300m kroner (pounds 25m) to tackle a pollution problem that scares it stiff but "obviously, the less we get a chance to have a look for ourselves, the less money will be spent", says Ommund Heggheim, State Secretary at the Defence Ministry in Oslo. If anything, Russia's stance is likely to harden now that Yevgeny Primakov, a foreign-policy hawk from Soviet times and sympathetic to the military, is Prime Minister in Moscow.

But a more immediate pointer will come today, when Alexander Nikitin, a former Soviet submarine captain-turned-sleuth for Bellona, goes on trial for espionage and treason in St Petersburg. He was co-author of Bellona's 1996 study of the Northern Fleet. If Mr Nikitin is harshly sentenced, Russia's and the world's environmentalists should fear the worst. Overshadowing everything, however, is the crisis of money and morale gripping the armed services.

The Defence Ministry has more pressing matters than decaying nuclear facilities. Wages are hopelessly in arrears. The conscript who ran amok on an (unarmed) submarine at Murmansk last month, killing eight colleagues, was merely proof of how deprivation and brutality breed only despair. As Mr Nilsen puts it: "If you're a naval officer in charge of the safety of your ship, and you haven't been paid for five months and your children are sitting at home half-starving, you're not going to care very much."