Albion Monitor /News

Yeltsin Signs Law: Rusting Nuke Stockpile Now State Secret

by Andrei Ivanov and Judith Perera

and related article in this topic
(IPS) MOSCOW -- A revision to Russia's law on state secrets enforced this month may seriously impede efforts to resolve the long-running conflict over nuclear safety at the former Soviet naval bases in the country's far north.

Thomas Nilsen of the Norwegian environmental group the Bellona Foundation says the new law, signed into law by President Boris Yeltsin on Oct. 6, classifies all information on military bases, including shipyards, labor conditions, and radioactive waste as secret.

Investigations into possible breaches of the new law will be will be the responsibility of the federal security service (FSB), successor to the Cold War Soviet KGB.

"The law seems to have been issued as a preparation for the trial against me," says former naval officer Aleksandr Nikitin, who is charged with treason for providing information to Bellona on radioactive contamination in the naval shipyards of the northwest.

Information on all military nuclear facilities and weapons development is now classified
The Bellona case, which has continued for two years, has been characterized by an on-going struggle between the FSB and the civil justice system.

Determined to get a conviction, and despite the fact that the civil courts have found no real case to answer, the FSB have issued five slightly different sets of charges and have resorted to citing secret decrees and the legal basis for their action.

Moreover these decrees have been invoked retroactively, which is in violation of the Russian constitution.

Article 5 of the new law states that all information on the deployment of military equipment, mobilization of forces and development of military equipment is secret.

In addition, information on all military nuclear facilities and weapons development is now classified, as well as information on "about nuclear power installations and special physical installations which have significance for defense."

Nilsen is concerned that the law may have serious consequences for international cooperation on military nuclear waste. Both Norwegian and U.S. authorities are involved with projects to help to clean-up military bases on the Kola Peninsula in Russia's far north.

If the law is strictly applied, international participants will no longer be given access to information concerning the Northern Fleet's radioactive waste or to the decommissioning of retired submarines.

And there are important implications for Russia's nuclear industry in general. Most facilities, other than power plants, are still considered to be "military" since they service both the military and civilian sectors.

This includes facilities such as the nuclear reprocessing plant at the Mayak Chemical Combine near Chelyabinsk, similar facilities near Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, and major research centers such as those at Sarov, near Nizhny Novgorod and Snezhinsk near Chelyabinsk.

All these were formerly secret closed towns identified only by the postal codes. However, in recent years they have been opened up and many now depend on contracts with the West for some of their income.

There have already been some indications of a tightening up of security.

In September the eighth annual meeting of the Russian Nuclear Society was held in Yekaterinburg in the Urals. As part of the proceedings, delegates were offered technical visits to various nuclear facilities in the region including Mayak and Snezhinsk.

However, just before the meeting opened on Sept. 15, all these visits were cancelled with no explanation.

There are fears that, during winter, containers with spent fuel will develop cracks and could leak radioactivity when thawing begins in spring
Most of these nuclear-military facilities have serious financial problems, and a number of strikes have been staged in protest at wage arrears over the past two years. Some despairing scientists have even committed suicide as a result.

Reporting such incidents in future may contravene the new secrets law. The old text made provisions for case-by-case evaluations, but the new text states that all information on military installations is secret.

Environmental reporting could also become more difficult. For example, it may no longer be possible for the concerned public to properly monitor the situation in some of Russia's most contaminated areas.

Bellona recently reported that the Russian Northern Fleet's main storage for nuclear waste at Kola Peninsula is leaking radioactivity.

During 1997 all spent nuclear fuel which was sent to the naval base at Andreeva Bay, was stored in the open, without protection. Andreeva Bay is located on the western shore of the Litsa Fjord, 45 kilometers from the Norwegian border.

The base is the only operating store for spent nuclear fuel from the Northern Fleet's nuclear submarines, and already holds. 21,000 spent fuel elements in three concrete tanks in very poor condition.

These storage tanks have been filled to capacity since the beginning of the 1990s but until 1996, spent fuel was transported to the reprocessing plant at Mayak. This transportation has been stopped totally throughout 1997.

Several tens of containers with spent fuel are just standing on the ground near the three overfilled tanks. There are fears that, during winter, these containers will develop cracks and could leak radioactivity when thawing begins in spring.

However, the fate of these containers and tanks may now be kept secret, and the local population and neighboring countries may remain unaware of the risks they are running.

The three concrete tanks, which store 21,000 spent nuclear fuel elements, are so run down that the stability of the fuel elements is compromised warns Bellona. The distance between elements is only 25 centimeters. The concrete which separates the elements has developed cracks, because of snow and ice.

As a result there is a risk of criticality (chain reactions). The risk will be greatest when freezing starts later in October and in November. During 1997 the Northern Fleet received no money for vital maintenance.

The workers refuse to accept any responsibility for this situation as they have received no pay for months. Parts of the Northern Fleets Labor Union went on strike in the beginning of October in protest.

They also sent a letter to Yeltsin, stressing that they cannot be held responsible for the situation. Even before the new law was introduced, Russia denied experts from Norway and the United States proper information on the situation in the Litsa Fjord.

Even the Russian civilian nuclear inspection Gosatomnadzor has been denied entry to the base. Norwegian scientists have for not been permitted to take samples near the fjord. The Bellona Report on the situation has already been banned in Russia.

With the new secrets law, the FSB has clearly won the latest round in the battle for control. How strictly the new law is implemented will indicate the real extent of this victory.

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Albion Monitor October 27, 1997 (

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