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

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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)

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