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Ghosts of the Cold War | Cutting the Ends of the Earth | Silence Under Siege

Ghosts of the Cold War

by Margaret L. Knox

Forget Hunt for Red October. In reality, post-Soviet Russia cannot afford to properly maintain or mothball its aging nuclear-submarine fleet, so scores of old, rusty reactors are disintegrating in Russia's polar seas. You would think the man who called the government's attention to the problem would get a medal. Instead, Russia literally wants to kill the messenger: whistleblower Aleksandr Nikitin faces the death penalty.

Nikitin, a nuclear engineer and retired captain in the Russian navy, committed the crime of working with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona to produce a bleak report on the Russian submarine fleet. Released in November 1995, it describes a series of submarine accidents between 1961 and 1995 in which at least 507 people were killed by radioactivity released by explosions or leaks, and blames rushed and defective submarine construction, inadequate testing, poor crew training, and an irresponsible military bureaucracy.

"Without international cooperation and financing," it warns, "a grave situation could arise which can be pictured as a Chernobyl in slow motion. If safety measures are not implemented, major accidents and the release of fissile material will be unavoidable."

Ironically, international disarmament treaties requiring the decommissioning of submarines have made matters worse; while 130 submarines have already been mothballed, Russia lacks the funds to defuel the submarine's reactors and store the wastes. The city of Severodvinsk, a center for decommissioning, has appealed fruitlessly to Moscow for financial assistance for electricity, salaries, housing, and heating for shipyard workers. Bellona fears that the subs, many of which have already suffered accidents, will sink into the White Sea before the financing, know-how, and infrastructure can be mustered to remove their nuclear fuels. Even more ominously, the report warns that fires or explosions as the subs decay could result in catastrophic reactor meltdowns.

The Kola Peninsula where the Russian submarine fleet is based, just east of northern Finland, holds the greatest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world, with 18 percent of all reactors. A major accident there could contaminate marine mammals and fish stocks throughout the North Atlantic; a submarine surfacing after an accident at sea could also spread radiation to large areas of the European Arctic.

Instead of welcoming the international cooperation the authors of the report had hoped to inspire, Russian officials reverted to repressive tactics reminiscent of the Stalin era. Agents of the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) raided Bellona's offices in Murmansk, confiscating files and computers and interrogating researchers. Last year on February 6 they also rousted Nikitin, one of three coauthors of the report, from his St. Petersburg apartment, detaining him in solitary confinement for ten months on charges of forgery, treason, and revealing state secrets.

"This has been a very strange case," says Mariana Katzarova, a researcher in London for Amnesty International. The Security Service, she charges, has openly violated its own investigative procedures, and the prosecution of Nikitin violates clauses of the Russian constitution that were written in recognition of the environmental disasters of the Soviet era and that specifically forbid "secrecy in matters that may constitute hazards to the environment or the health of individuals." Bellona insists that its analysis was based on open sources, including newspapers, professional literature, and research reports. Amnesty's own investigation came to the same conclusion, and the organization adopted Nikitin as a prisoner of conscience.

"He was trained and employed to care about nuclear safety and he took his job seriously," says Stephen Mills, director of the Sierra Club's human-rights and environment campaign. "And now he faces the death penalty."

Intense international pressure did lead to Nikitin's release from prison last December, but the charges against him still stand, and Bellona's report remains banned in Russia‹the first publication to be prohibited there since the fall of the Soviet Union.

"This is both an environmental issue and a political issue of free speech," says Kay van der Horst, executive director of Bellona USA. "It is vital to make Russian officials understand that the Bellona report should be fully accessible to the Russian public, and that the charges against Aleksandr Nikitin be dropped."

For more information, see Bellona's Web site (, or contact Stephen Mills at (202) 675-6691 or

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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