Russian forces 'ignoring nuclear risks'

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The Independent Online


Russia's giant military establishment, long accused by environmentalists of scandalous laxity in its handling of radioactive materials, has come under fire from a top official of the Russian nuclear safety inspectorate, who warns that its sloppy methods and lack of external monitoring amount to an "extreme radiation risk".

In a blistering article in Izvestia, Alexander Kanygin, a regional representative with the State Committee for Atomic Safety Supervision (Gosatomnadzor), painted a chilling picture of low safety standards at Russian military installations, singling out a gung-ho attitude to the handling and storage of radioactive waste.

The broadside is the latest skirmish in a war between Gosatomnadzor officials and Russia's powerful generals over the right to monitor the military's efforts to store or dispose of radioactive materials, an issue which has become increasingly critical as the country dismantles its vast and often decrepit Cold War machine.

The scale of the problem became clear in November when Bellona, the Norwegian environmental group, released pictures of dozens of spent fuel containers from an early Russian nuclear submarine, each allegedly as radioactive as last year's first French nuclear test in the Pacific, which have been sitting in a dump near the Norwegian border for more than 30 years.

In his article, Mr Kanygin, a former Red Army colonel who held a senior post in its radioactive and biological warfare department, accused the military of failing adequately to train staff, protect hazardous materials or analyse potential damage to people and the environment. If radioactive equipment is lost, "nobody looks for it; it is simply written off", he alleged.

Although the military has always staunchly resisted outside inspection, the controversy gathered pace six months ago when President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree stripping Gosatomnadzor of its formal right to monitor the handling of nuclear waste at military installations. Supervisory duties were transferred to the Ministry of Defence - in effect, allowing the culprits to police themselves.

Gosatomnadzor executives were horrified, not least because of the military's dismal standards. Last year their annual safety review (for 1994) of Russia's nuclear sector demanded that the Ministry of Defence stop dumping radioactive waste into the sea, and make immediate improvements across arange of activities, from handling spent nuclear fuel to dismantling decommissioned submarines.

According to Mr Kanygin, Mr Yeltsin's decree had the added disadvantage of allowing the generals to classify all information about potentially lethal radioactive materials as top secret - including details of the roads along which waste is transported and where it is disposed of. The President's order has created a "dangerous loophole" in the regulatory system, he said, adding that Russians now face a greater danger from their own army than from any outside enemy. "If there is no strict civil control

Although the military seem certain to shrug off his attack, it will serve to confirm the many warnings issued by environmental agencies, which have watched one radiation-related crisis after another unfold in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bellona's experience while investigating the scandal of the spent submarine fuel rods underscores Mr Kalygin's complaints about the military's passion for secrecy. The security service, the FSB, raided the group's premises in Murmansk and St Petersburg, seizing computers and documents, and harassed its Russian assistants.

When Greenpeace asked the naval authorities for permission to check radiation levels on publicly accessible land outside the perimeter of bases, the requests were abruptly denied. A Greenpeace spokesman in Moscow yesterday said that the navy used to send its radioactive waste for processing to Chelyabinsk-65, a closed city in the southern Urals, but now lacks the money to do so. "This is a huge problem, which is out of control."