murmansk, russia -- in the parking lot outside the Kola nuclear power plant, here in the northwest corner of Russia's Arctic, we wait for security clearance while a woman in overalls patches the cement on a parking divider. She has long, dangly earrings and a bouffant hairdo and looks more like a hairdresser than a stonemason. I am here as part of a delegation of social scientists probing the effects of industrialization on the Russian Arctic. Today we seeking info on the treatment and storage of nuclear waste.
We certainly don't learn much from our guide here at the plant, who is exceptionally circumspect. An engineer by training, she has been working at the plant as long as it has been open, and while she is eager to tell us how the reactors at Kola operate, she neglects to say that international experts consider these the most dangerous types of reactors in the world.
As for the question of waste, she reports matter-of-factly that waste water is filtered and put directly into Lake Imandra. The authorities claim the waste water is just as clean as when it was drawn from the lake. Besides, as our guide eagerly reminds us, no health problems related to nuclear waste water have yet been detected.
Later, in the more neutral space of the Kola Science Centre, spokesperson Sergei Morozov informs me sheepishly that in the 50s and 60s liquid nuclear waste from the Kola nuclear power station was dumped directly into the Barents Sea. However, according to a report of the the Norway-based Bellona Foundation, a nuclear watchdog, this practice continued until much later: "Until 1992, most of the solid and liquid radioactive waste was dumped in the Barents and Kara Seas. Sixteen reactors, some with and some without spent nuclear fuel, were also dumped into the Kara Sea."
Today, however, "liquid radioactive waste is stored at almost all of the naval bases, either in land-based tanks or on-board service ships or floating tankers. Most of the storage tanks for liquid radioactive waste are full, and a number of them are in very poor condition."
I suppose that when it comes to matters of national embarrassment there is never much consensus and facts are hard to come by.
If waste water is a taboo subject, the solid waste problem is even trickier. According to the same Bellona Foundation report, approximately 20,000 cubic metres of solid radioactive waste are stored at 11 different sites along the coast of the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk. All of the facilities are full, and at a number of them solid radioactive waste is also stored in the open air outside the storage building, with no protection or security.
According to Morozov, after three years the waste is shipped by rail to Siberia. In Russia, "going to Siberia" is the end of the discussion. No one seems to know or ask what happens after that. The environmental effects on the delicate Siberian ecosystem are another story altogether.
Perhaps this perception of Siberia as a vast black hole is what allows Russian officials to consider assuming responsibility for the nuclear waste of land-poor European countries. Accepting their waste would mean an injection of more than $3 billion (Canadian) into the floundering economy. Morozov tells us the state Duma is debating such a measure.
I discover later that there are only two nuclear transport trains available in Russia, and the risk of accident or breakdown en route is very high. With the existing infrastructure it would take 30 years to transport to Siberia all the spent fuel from the 170 reactors in the Kola region.
But Morozov, for one, is serious about the high risk of radioactive disaster in the region due to the "high number of dangerous nuclear objects." These include nuclear-powered submarines like the Kursk, a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers that keep Murmansk's harbour open and the Kola nuclear power station.
After the recent events in New York City and Washington, Morozov feels that the greatest risks are from international terrorists rather than old equipment. In the event of a nuclear disaster, intentional or not, Russian scientists at the Kola Science Centre have predicted that most of the fallout would land in the Scandinavian countries within a day, depending, of course, on how the wind blows.
Predictably, conversation moves to the catastrophe at Chernobyl. In an amazing moment of denial, our guide at Kola Nuclear Power asserts that during the Chernobyl meltdown nobody who worked at her plant was "frightened" because they all knew what precautions to take in such a situation. The "overreaction" about nuclear power, she tells us, comes only from the general population, not the specialists who are educated about nuclear power and how it works.
In a similar discussion on Chernobyl, Vladislav Elohin, deputy-director of the Institute of Economic Problems at the Kola Science Centre, cites the slim probability that such a disaster will occur again. Perhaps this seems too much like the western mode of risk assessment and liability calculations, because he quickly switches to the more familiar Russian-style explanation: someone failed to follow regulations. "The failure at Chernobyl was a question of discipline. There was a protocol and it was ignored."
Knowing what to do in any situation (based on protocol) is a Russian specialty, a hold-over from the Soviet era. But after September 11 everything has changed. If the American intelligence bureaucracy could fail in such a colossal way, what could happen in Russia -- or anywhere else, for that matter?Lisa Stevenson, a Torontonian, is a PhD student in medical anthropology at the University of California. Her trip was made possible by the Circumpolar Arctic Social Science PhD network.