Sara Wheeler: Why is Russia's Arctic closed to visitors? Who is hiding what?

I worry about Russian transparency when it comes to safety standards

Share
Related Topics

The Russian Arctic is savage. I travelled across it to research my book on the Arctic Circle. My nostrils froze, one of my teeth exploded, and my exhaled breath fell in a tinkle of crystals. The region is so isolated that reindeer-herding residents refer to the rest of Russia as "the mainland". But the landscape is the most powerful I have ever seen: dazzling, pristine, a kind of biological haiku. I love the pared-down existence of polar lands and the grace of their peoples under pressure.

Chukotka is an Arctic region the size of Turkey in the Russian Far East (it's the bit Sarah Palin can see from Alaska). This magical slab of ice and tundra has no roads at all outside the capital, Anadyr. It took me two years to weasel my way in, but when I got there, I ran into President Medvedev. That morning he had stepped out of his helicopter to pat a reindeer and listen to some Chukchi folk songs in a local school. He was the first Russian head of state to bother; no tsar had ever come within a thousand miles. Five days previously, in a speech on Arctic policy to the Security Council in Moscow, Medvedev had flagged the reason for his visit. "This region," he said, "accounts for around 20 per cent of Russia's gross domestic product and 22 per cent of our national exports." He was talking about oil and gas. And now he wants more.

The emergence of the Arctic as an energy frontier has shunted the entire zone into public consciousness, and hydrocarbon extraction is certainly set to remain an economic driver across the polar lands, not just in Russia. I'm not going to stop burning up my own share, so it would be hypocritical of me to call for a drilling ban. But I hope we don't foul up one of our last true wildernesses.

I worry about Russian transparency when it comes to safety standards. Along the Murman coast in the Arctic I saw fuelled submarines lolling like beached killer whales, each one awaiting decommissioning that never comes. If Russia's lawless edge lingers anywhere, it is in the Arctic. The punishing climate makes protection hard, and the Russian record on its polar shelf is poor. A series of incidents at the Zapadnaya Litsa nuclear plant in the Eighties started when the concrete and steel lining of a spent fuel storage pool cracked. Radioactive waste water started to leak at a rate of 30 litres a day, soon reaching ten tonnes an hour. Yes, ten tonnes an hour.

The Rosneft drilling "blocks" are in the Kara Sea, where, according to a 2008 Bellona report, nuclear-powered underwater drilling ships are to be deployed sometime soon, as well as floating nuclear power plants. And why is so much of the Russian Arctic closed to foreigners? Who is hiding what? On the Domodedovo plane back from Anadyr to Moscow, I sat next to a geochemist who had been working on a research vessel scouting the Barents Sea for potential drilling sites. When I asked if safety procedures were policed, he rolled his eyes and ordered another drink.

I remember looking out at the Kara from the deck of a stationary icebreaker. Beluga were fluking close by, and ivory shards of porcelain ice washed in and out with the ragged edges of the waves. The water, occluded with icebergs, sparkled with taffeta sheen in the midnight sun, and the horizon shimmered in the milky haze peculiar to high latitudes. My companion, a sailor from Vladivostok, was usually garrulous, like most residents of that city. But as we looked out over that scene of transcendent serenity, he said quietly: "No need for words. Kara speaks for itself." And it did. I hope we aren't about to murder it.

Sara Wheeler is the author of 'The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic' (Vintage)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
 

Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game