Welcome to Murmansk, dumping ground for a decrepit nuclear fleet

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The Independent Online

The massive grey concrete slab boasts "Hero City" as you drive into the bleak expanses of Murmansk. Today, "Radiation Scare City" might be a better name for the great ice-free port above the Arctic Circle, destination for the Allied convoy lifeline in the Second World War.

The massive grey concrete slab boasts "Hero City" as you drive into the bleak expanses of Murmansk. Today, "Radiation Scare City" might be a better name for the great ice-free port above the Arctic Circle, destination for the Allied convoy lifeline in the Second World War.

Murmansk is still an important port. But its main post-Soviet distinction is as the gateway to the Kola peninsula in far north-west Russia, and to the bases of the country's Northern Fleet, generator of perhaps the greatest - certainly the least protected - concentration of nuclear waste on earth.

Solid radioactive waste is stored at 11 separate sites around the peninsula, sometimes in the open without protection. Liquid waste is stored at the five main naval bases on the Kola, usually in equally poor conditions.

The stricken submarine Kursk was based at Zapadnaya Litsa, or "Western Estuary", 30 miles east of Russia's border with Norway. On the western shore lies Andreyeva Bay, where 21000 spent fuel rods - equal to 90 reactor cores - are stored in rusting containers and tanks whose contents are exposed to the skies.

On the eastern side is Nerpicha, home to six 30,000-ton Typhoons crammed with nuclear warheads, the largest submarines built.

For curious Westerners, Murmansk is as far as you get. Severomorsk, the headquarters of the Northern Fleet which lies 10 miles to the north, is closed to foreigners, and Zapadnaya Litsa is off limits even to Russians, apart from workers at the bases and the submariners.

But, as always, secrecy breeds rumour. Wedged claustrophobically along the eastern side of its fjord, Murmansk is a city where you feel you are living on the nuclear edge. Still moored close to its very centre is the infamous cargo ship Lepse, laden with hundreds of damaged fuel elements from nuclear-powered ice-breakers based in the port. Clean-up work on the Lepse has started.

But memories are still fresh of a few hours one May day in 1998. Rumours flashed around Severomorsk that a Delta-class submarine carrying nuclear missiles had a major accident in the Barents Sea. When the stories reached Murmansk and its population of 500,000, children were sent home from school and police were issued with iodine tablets.

Calm returned only when the regional governor and senior Northern Fleet officers held a press conference to insist the episode had been merely a planned exercise to test reaction to a possible nuclear accident aboard a submarine.

Thomas Nilsen, a specialist at Norway's Bellona Foundation, the world authority on the nuclear pollution threat of the Northern Fleet, was sceptical then about that explanation. And the Kursk disaster is no surprise to him now.

"Since the financial collapse of autumn 1998, the situation has been desperate for the Northern Fleet," he said. "There hasn't been enough money for wages and maintenance, and the best officers have left for jobs where at least their salaries are paid."

But one of the first things Vladimir Putin did after becoming President was spend a night on a nuclear missile submarine at Murmansk. "That was a sign of how important he believes the fleet to be," Mr Nilsen said. "Since then the fleet has been under more pressure."

After Admiral Hyman Rickover, a founder of the United States's nuclear navy, made a goodwill visit to the giant nuclear icebreaker Lenin in Murmansk, he tested himself, and found that in half an hour he had absorbed as much radioactivity as in half a lifetime on US nuclear-powered craft.

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