Unsafe disposal of radioactive materials pollutes coastal water, rivers, and terrestrial areas. Russia’s 12 operational RBMK-type nuclear reactors are considered unsafe; some reactors (with design modifications) are not scheduled for shutdown in the immediate future. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Beginning with glasnost in the mid-1980s and continuing with the establishment of an independent Russia in 1991, much disturbing information has become available about Soviet and Russian nuclear practices and mishaps. These disclosures have included deadly accidents on land and aboard naval vessels, a network of secret cities designed specifically for nuclear weapons production and material processing, detonation of nuclear blasts for "peaceful" purposes, and the dumping of nuclear waste at sea and its injection into subterranean cavities. *

More than any other event, the Chernobyl' disaster prompted greater scrutiny and candor about Soviet nuclear programs. Although much of the contamination from Chernobyl' occurred in the now-independent countries of Ukraine and Belarus, the present-day Russian Federation also received significant fallout from the accident. Approximately 50,000 square kilometers of the then Russian Republic, particularly the oblasts of Bryansk, Orel, Kaluga, and Tula, were contaminated with cesium-137. The total population of the nineteen oblasts and republics receiving fallout from Chernobyl' was 37 million in 1993.*

See Separate Article on Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Power in Russia

Russia is the third-largest generator of nuclear power in the world and fourth-largest in terms of installed nuclear capacity. With nine nuclear reactors currently under construction, Russia is the second country in the world, after China, in terms of number of reactors under construction as of March 2015. Russia has an installed nuclear capacity of more than 24 million kilowatts, distributed across 34 operating nuclear reactors at 10 locations. Nine plants are located west of the Ural Mountains. The only exception is the Bilibino plant in the far northeast. [Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, July 2015 ~]

Russia's current federal target program envisions a 25 percent to 30 percent nuclear power share of total generation by 2030, 45 percent to 50 percent by 2050, and 70 percent to 80 percent by 2100. To achieve these goals, the rapidly aging nuclear reactor fleet in Russia will need to be replaced with new nuclear power plants. Russia has completed a $780 million, 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor started in 1979 by Germany and later suspended.

Russians are less squeamish and have a different attitude about nuclear energy and radiation than Americans and Europeans. Many Russian who live in areas contaminated by radioactivity don't seem to care. They drink the water and eat fish from contaminated rivers and lakes even they have been warned not to. Russians who work around nuclear facilities claim that vodka washes away radiation. Russian scientists regard plutonium as a "national treasure."

Russian Nuclear Power Plants

Russia has 34 operating nuclear reactors at 10 locations, compared 29 in nine locations in 1996. They includes Balakovo on the northwest border of Kazakstan, Beloyarsk in the southern Urals, Bilibino in northeastern Siberia (the only station east of the Urals), Kola in the far northwest, Kursk near the Ukrainian border, Novovoronezh on the Don River, St. Petersburg, Smolensk west of Moscow, and Tver' northwest of Moscow.

Altogether these facilities accounted for 10 percent of Russia's energy generating capacity in 1994. The plants are operated by regional joint-stock companies in which the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) controls 51 percent of the shares. The nuclear energy sector has undergone financial problems because of government funding reductions. The industry has turned to selling goods related to nuclear energy--equipment and instruments, nuclear fuel, medical isotopes, and fertilizers. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

As of May 2015, nine new nuclear reactors were officially under construction across Russia, with 7,371 megawatt electric (MWe) net generating capacity. One of the plants under construction is a floating nuclear power plant, which is expected to commence operations by 2018. In addition to the nine nuclear reactors currently under construction, there are another 31 units planned, with a total gross generating capacity of more than 32,000 MWe. These units are planned to be completed between 2017 and 2030. [Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, July 2015 ~]

The Oslo-based Bellona Foundation has complained that continued operation of Chernobyl-type reactors presented an unacceptable risk to the Russian public. At Polyarenyye Zori, 100 miles south of Murmansk in the Russian Arctic, there is Chernobyl-like nuclear reactor described as one of the most dangerous in the world. There are 11 Chernobyl-type RBMK nuclear reactors in Russia (four near St. Petersburg, three neat Smolemsk, and four near Kursk). They have all been modified to prevent a Chernobyl-type disaster from happening.

Condition of Russia’s Nuclear Power Plants

None of Russia nuclear power plants has a complete safety certificate. Many have been cited for hundreds of violations. Even so the government wants to build more nuclear plants, including 40 "fast breeder" reactors that use plutonium for fuel. Some of Russia’s nuclear power plants rely on the same technology as the plant at Chernobyl. The Chernobyl reactor was a RBMK-type reactor. A total of 17 of these reactors were built—four in the Ukraine 11 in Russia and 2 in Lithuania. Most of the other reactors in the former Soviet Union are similar to those in the United States and Europe.

One problem with many Russian nuclear power plants is that they do not have concrete containment domes, which contain the radiation, like those found on Western countries. In 2003, the United States made a deal with Russia to build two-coal burning power plants in exchange for closing three plutonium reactors regarded as among the most dangerous in the world.

Russia's nuclear power facilities are aging. The working life of a reactor is considered to be 30 years, but Russia has an active life extension program. The period for extension is established by the government as 15 years, and 21 of Russia's nuclear reactors, accounting for half of the country's operating nuclear capacity, are 30 or more years old. Eleven of the country's 34 nuclear reactors use the high-power channel reactor (RBMK) design employed in Ukraine's Chernobyl plant. Russia's newest reactor, the 1,011 Megawatt electric (MWe) Rostov 3 reactor, was connected to the grid in December 2014, and it is expected to begin commercial operation in the third quarter of 2015. [Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, July 2015 ~]

The industry's financial problems, along with the disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl' plant in Ukraine in 1986, have raised questions about nuclear safety. Western countries have provided financial assistance in some cases because of their concern about Russia's lax standards of handling nuclear materials and the continued use of outmoded equipment. Russia's piecemeal environmental laws have led to indiscriminate dumping and burial of radioactive wastes, which are creating severe environmental problems. The theft of nuclear materials has become another source of danger emanating from Russia's nuclear energy program. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Nevertheless, experts predict that nuclear energy probably will play an important role in the Russian economy if enough investment is available to expand existing capacity. In 1992 Minatom announced plans to double nuclear energy capacity by 2010, but ensuing financial problems have caused a reduction of that goal, and no new capacity has been added since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) projects that construction of new capacity will not begin until after 2005, even if the investment climate is favorable. *

There are high risk nuclear reactor sites in Kola, St. Petersburg, Smolensk, Novovoronezh and Kursk. Three 3 nuclear submarines stationed at the Siberian town of Viliuchinsk were jerry-rigged to provide electricity. Around 34 tons of plutonium, much of it produced by nuclear power plants, is stockpiled in Russia.

Nuclear Engineering in Russia

In 1956, a nuclear bomb was detonated underground to cerate a reservoir 65 miles southwest of Semey, a city in Kazakhstan. Large amounts of radiation was released into the atmosphere at the time of the blast was blown into populated areas. The reservoir is now called Atomic Lake.

In the Volga Basin nuclear explosions were set off to create vast reservoirs for natural gas. The gas emitted from the plant which processed the natural gas was said to be so toxic that doctors warned the health of children in villages 50 miles away was affected. [National Geographic, On Television, June 1993].

The Soviet Union detonated 116 nuclear bombs for "peaceful purposes" such as building mines and canals. Fifteen devise were set underground only a few miles from villages to create underground gas reservoirs. All but two of them caved in, making them useless, and one leaked low-level radiation. It is hard to imagine what the Soviets had in mind. Even if the cavities didn't collapse, what were people supposed to do heat their homes with gas made radioactive after being stored. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, August 1994]

Convinced that more water could help the Caspian Sea rebound, Soviet engineers in the early 1970s considered using nuclear explosions to open a new canal between the Pechora River and Kama River (a tributary of the Volga). Three 15-kiloton nuclear devices were detonated as part of an experiment and the radiation levels were figured to be within allowable limited. Even though the Soviet Union possessed the weapons to do the job (250 devices between 100 and 200 kilotons) the programs was eventually dropped because it was worried that it would divert to much warm water away from the Arctic Ocean and affect navigation there.

Nuclear Poisoning at Mayak

Mayak—near Chelyabinsk 210 kilometers south of Yekaterinburg, just to the east of the Ural Mountains—is the home of Russia's main disposal facility for nuclear waste. Situated near a secret nuclear-weapon-producing complex named Chelyabinsk-65, the facility opened in 1949. Between 1948 and 1951 untreated waste with as much radioactivity as half a Hiroshima bomb were released into the tributaries of the Techa River. A nearby swamp was converted into a mile-long, open-air radioactive lake called Lake Karachai. Radioactive water from the Techa River has flooded nearby villages.

Entire towns in the region have come down with leukemia and other radiation-related illnesses. One of the worst hit places was Muslyumovo, a village of 2,500 Tatars, which obtained its drinking water from the Techa river. Men became infertile, farmers found their joints ached so much they couldn't operate their tractors. The frequency of genetic mutation in children was three higher than other places in Russia.

In 1957 the overheating of a nuclear waste container caused an explosion of a liquid waste holding tank at the nuclear facility near Kyshtym (now Mayak). A radioactive cloud of 20 million curries was released and spread out over 23,000 square kilometers. The disaster was caused by a cooling system failure. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to large amounts of radiation. Some 8,015 people died and 17,000 people were evacuated. More than 30 small communities in a 460-mile area were wiped off the map. The radioactivity of 40 Hiroshima bombs drained into a Lake Karachai, creating highly-toxic radioactive sediment. In 1967, during a particularly hot and dry summer, Lake Karachai dried out and wind and dust storms carried radioactive dust into surrounding villages and forests.

Lake Karachai has been named by the Natural Forces Defense Council as the "most polluted spot on Earth." Some 100 million curries of radioactivity, including strontium 90 and cesium 137 remain in lake. The groundwater and even the air is contaminated. The area is prone to storms and earthquakes which could spread the radiation. No efforts was made to clean up the area even though more radiation may have been released from there than at Chernobyl. Soviet scientists monitored villagers as if they were human guinea pigs, telling them nothing while secretly diagnosing their weight loss, aches and weakness as symptoms of chronic radiation sickness.

Nuclear Contamination Tomsk and the Yenisey River

Tomsk in central Siberia was a secret city with a population of 500,000 people. Nuclear reactors used to create weapons-grade plutonium outside Tomsk were connected to the city by four steel pipes, each 4 feet in diameter, that carried steam from the reactors 19 miles away to heat apartments and homes in the nine-month winter. The city depended on the reactors for about a forth of its heat.

In 1993, a 9,246-gallon tank full of plutonium and uranium exploded at the Tomsk-7 nuclear installation. A northwest wind blew radioactive material to nearby villages and towns. After the disaster radioactive material began being injected into the earth

Waste from plutonium processing plants near Kransnoyarsk have ended up in the Yenisey River, the largest river in Russia in terms of volume. The Yenisey River near the Arctic, a region that seem like a pristine wilderness, has been contaminated by plutonium leaked from three nuclear powers plants over 40 years.

Nuclear Dumping in Russia

The Soviet, now Russian, navy's disposal and accidental venting of radioactive materials pose particular problems. Beginning in 1965, twenty nuclear reactors, most with their fuel rods still inside, were dumped from nuclear submarines and an icebreaker into the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Japan has been engaged in a long struggle to stop Russia's Pacific Fleet from dumping radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan. In 1994 Russia complied with Japan's demand to cease dumping entirely; after a long series of negotiations, in January 1996 Russia and Japan agreed on construction of a floating nuclear waste recycling plant and expansion of an existing facility to process nuclear waste generated by the Pacific Fleet. The United States and Japan are to fund the first project, and the United States and Norway the second. *

In the mid-1990s, Russia still was seeking methods of storing and disposing of first-generation radioactive waste in many regions, including the European Arctic. Under these conditions, experts predict that the country will be hard-pressed to comply with the requirements of the arms reduction agreements for disposal of waste from thousands of nuclear weapons scheduled for destruction later in the 1990s.*

Nuclear Weapons Dumping Sites in Russia

The Soviet Union’s first atom bombs were constructed in Moscow under Stalin’s orders with little concern for the environmental consequences. One of the results is large radioactive waste sites within the Moscow’s city limits. In some cases nuclear waste was haphazardly dumped in a forest and was forgotten about while the forest was later leveled and developed with apartments, where lots of people live. People living in some places have been exposed to high levels of radiation. In one place a large waste site was near a beer brewery.

The main nuclear weapons sites in eastern Russia are: 1) near Moscow (a research institute with a research reactor with weapons grade material); 2) near Obrinisk near Moscow (a research institute with a research reactor with weapons grade material); 3) near St. Petersburg (a research institute with a research reactor with weapons grade material); 4) Arzamas near the Volga River (warhead assembly and dismantlement); 5) Dimitrovgrad near the Volga River (a research institute with a research reactor with weapons grade material).

The main weapons nuclear sites in the Urals and Siberia are: 1) Yekaterinburg in the Urals (weapons-grade uranium enrichment and processing, warhead assembly and dismantlement); 2) Chelyabinsk near the Urals (plutonium production, warhead assembly and dismantlement); 3) Tomsk near the Ob River in Siberia (plutonium production, weapons-grade uranium enrichment and processing); 4) Krasonoyark on the Yenisei River in Siberia (plutonium production).

In the 1990s, a Russian government agency called Radon was in charge of finding, retrieving and securing nuclear waste. When it found a site in the Moscow area it retrieved the nuclear material and trucked it to a dump 1,000 kilometers from Moscow, where it was is burned in intense heat which converted it to obsidian like blocks and this are embedded in concrete to prevent the radiation from leaking. Radon received some financial assistance from the United States. A group called the Non-Proliferation Trust has suggested that the United States send 10,000 tons of radioactive material to Russia and pay the Russians $15 billion to take it.

Nuclear Materials in the Russian Arctic

In 1994, the Bellona Foundation estimated that radioactive dumping in the Kara Sea north of western Siberia and adjacent waters constituted two-thirds of all the radioactive materials that ever have entered the world's oceans. In 1996 Bellona identified fifty-two decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines that were scheduled for scrapping but were still afloat near Murmansk with nuclear fuel on board; a timetable for dismantling them has fallen far behind. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Kola Peninsula—an area around Murmansk between the Barents and White Seas just east of Norway and Finland—has been described as the most dangerous place on the planet. In a 56,000 square mile area, with 1.5 million people, is the greatest concentration of nuclear reactors (18 percent of the world's total, 182 in operation and 135 no longer used as of the early 2000s). Most of the reactors are on submarines and ships. Offshore is two thirds of all the radioactive material ever dumped in the seas. Item that have been dumped include 14 reactors (four with fuel); one disabled sub sunk, with fuel reactors; 17 other contaminated vessels sunk; and thousands of barrels of radioactive waste.

Norwegian scientist fear that in some places the Arctic food chain—plankton to fish to mammals—is radiation tainted. The population in the area has been trained to down iodine tablets in the event of disaster and close the schools. The reason why the Soviets chose the Kola Peninsula as base is that it lies at the end of the Gulf Stream and is Russia's only port with unrestricted year-round access to the Atlantic. Dumping almost as bad has occurred in the Sea of Japan.

Nuclear Dumping Sites in the Russian Arctic

Spent nuclear fuel is stored at: 1) Andreeva Bay (with 23,650 fuels assemblies from decommissioned submarines, 2,600 cubic meters of radioactive water from fuel systems in the subs and at least 7,800 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste as); 2) Gazhievo (260 cubic meter of radioactive water and 2,650 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste); and 3) Gremika (795 decommissioned fuel assemblies, plus nine reactor cores.

Andreeva Bay is only 30 miles from Norway. Many of the concrete tanks and rusting containers are open to the elements and leaking into a river and the sea. Each of the canisters near the Norwegian border is believed to contain the same amount of radiation released by the French nuclear test at Mururoa atoll in September 1995. The canisters sit outside, cracking and corroding in the hot summer and winters with temperatures that drop below -40 degrees F. At one time there was not even a fence around them.

Nuclear Waste from Submarines and Icebreakers

The Lepse, a nuclear-powered icebreaker docked in Murmansk, has been partly encased in an a concrete sarcophagus but is expected to leak radiation for 200,000 years. Spent nuclear material began being deposited in its hold in the 1980s but due to inadequate cooling the material began expanding to the point where it no longer fit in the containers. To make them fit, workers crushed the containers with sledgehammers making them even more dangerous than before.

Nuclear material was loaded on the Lepse in 1966 after an accident on a Soviet nuclear icebreaker. Cement poured over the hole. If the Lepse were to sink it could release radioactivity on a catastrophic level.

There are about 100 nuclear-power submarines in the Murmansk area, including three nuclear submarines in the icy waters off of Snezhnogorsk on the Kola peninsula. There are worries that a serious accident or terrorist attack involving these submarines could cause a nuclear disaster the would make Chernobyl look like a playground accident. There is some talk of "200 Hiroshimas."

Nuclear Material Injected Into the Earth

Over three decades, the Soviet Union and Russia pumped billions of gallons of radioactive water and waste directly into the earth. Most of it has been injected between layers of shale and clay, which are regarded as leakproof, often near major rivers. There have been reports of leaks, in some cases long distances from their source.

The three most potentially dangerous sites are: 1) Dimitrovgrad near the Volga River, 2) Tomsk near the Ob River and 3) Krasonoyark on the Yenisei River. The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. The Ob and the Yenisi flow into the Arctic Ocean.

The amount of radioactivity of the injected nuclear material has been estimated at three billion curies (in contrast the accident at Chernobyl released 50 million curies and the accident at Three Mile Island released 50 curries).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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