Russia's luxury Arctic tours 'risk nuclear disaster'

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The Independent Online

A luxurious cruise to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker, complete with champagne, the promise of polar bear sightings and rare birds is billed as the trip of a lifetime. But environmentalists say such cruises are imperilling one of the world's most fragile and pristine ecosystems.

A luxurious cruise to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker, complete with champagne, the promise of polar bear sightings and rare birds is billed as the trip of a lifetime. But environmentalists say such cruises are imperilling one of the world's most fragile and pristine ecosystems.

Friends of the Earth Norway yesterday demanded that the cruises be halted on environmental and ethical grounds. "We can't just sit and watch this happen," Anders Larsen, of the organisation's youth group, said. "It is playing Russian roulette with the environment in the Arctic. The further north they go the more dangerous it is for the ecosystem.

"Wealthy Western tourists should take responsibility for themselves. They can't just blame the Russians; they have ethical responsibilities."

The cruises hit the headlines in Russia after prosecutors alleged this week that the country's fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers had been illegally used for the lucrative tourist jaunts and the government had been cheated out of millions of dollars.

The firm that operates the ships, the Murmansk Maritime Company, was also accused of imperilling national security on the grounds that cruises on vessels powered by nuclear reactors offered a soft target for terrorists posing as foreign tourists and needlessly increased the risk of a radiation leak through unnecessary wear and tear.

Mr Larsen echoed that view, saying the cruises unnecessarily risked a nuclear accident whose fallout would be catastrophic for the Arctic. Environmentalists also complain that Russia has problems disposing of the nuclear waste generated by the ships' activities.

Sergei Javaronkin, of the nuclear safety group Bellona, said yesterday from Murmansk: "[The cruises] get the adrenaline going and give people a special feeling. " But he said little thought had gone into the wider impact. "Western tour firms and the Russian company just haven't thought about the consequences. It's a good business and they only think of money and profit."

Russia is the only country that uses nuclear-powered ice-breakers; it has six. They were originally built to keep shipping lanes along the northern coast of Siberia open for cargo ships.

Cruises to the North Pole on the vessels, organised through upmarket Western tour firms, have boomed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Prices start at about £8,000 for a two-week holiday.

The vessels are state property and the government owns more than 25 per cent of the operating company's shares. The criminal case alleges, however, that managers at the Murmansk Maritime Company exceeded their authority and embezzled millions of dollars from the state.

The daily Izvestia reported yesterday that the state had been swindled out of $7.4m (£4m) each year the cruises had operated. The government appeared to have been squeezed out of its management role of the ice-breakers and money made from tourist trips went through accounts over which it had no control, the paper said.

The firm is also accused of failing to repair a seventh ice-breaker, Siberia, which was withdrawn from service in 1992 and has since cost the state a fortune to maintain.

Vladimir Blinov, a representative of the Murmansk Maritime Company, denied all the allegations and said that the firm had launched its own legal challenge against them. National security was not endangered because the trips were sanctioned and overseen by the FSB, the successor organisation to the KGB, he said. Nor, he added, was safety an issue, with stringent security measures in place to guard against the risk of a terrorist hijacking and a regular maintenance schedule for the nuclear reactors.

Highlights of such cruises typically include walking around the North Pole, passing through 24 time zones in less than five minutes, a brief dip in the Arctic Ocean, and seeing polar bears and other exotic flora and fauna. On their way back from the North Pole the tourists get the chance to see Russia's Franz Josef islands, famed for birds and their stark lichen-covered tundra.

The ships have been luxuriously converted. Most have a swimming pool, a sauna and gym. The cruises are particularly popular with wealthy American businessmen.

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