Russia Agrees to Take the world's Nuclear Waste: But Where to Put it

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Russia Agrees to Take the World's Nuclear Waste: But Where to Put it ?

The Conflict

With already serious nuclear waste problems and a very poor track record in nuclear safety, Russia has approved plans to import more spent nuclear waste from elsewhere in the world for reprocessing. Russia claims that it will use the profits to clean up its considerable nuclear waste problem, but there is worldwide skepticism about its ability to do so and fear of the consequences for the planet if its efforts are unsuccessful.


•The passage of the nuclear waste law contravened both the section of the Russian constitution covering popular opposition expressed through petitions and referenda, and in the process of legislative enactment itself, with all debate in Russia's upper legislative house being bypassed.


  • Every geographic and political entity that formed a part of the Soviet Union continues to be profoundly affected by the Soviet nuclear legacy, but none is capable of solving the environmental, social, political, or health effects through an application of its own resources.
  • Economic sectors in other countries, such as England and Norway, are already being adversely affected by radioactive waste from Russia and the former Soviet republics.
  • The full cost of cleaning up the Soviet-era nuclear mess will certainly run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Serious aid to Russia and the former Soviet republics from other nations is necessary to cope with the tremendous nuclear waste legacy of the Soviet era.

On July 11, 2001, Russian president Vladimir Putin approved a law that clears the way for Russia to import approximately 22,000 tons of nuclear waste over a ten-year period. The storage, processing, and eventual disposal of that waste could, according to the plan's supporters, generate as much as US$20-21 billion for the Russian government, money that may be used to help clean up Russia's domestic nuclear waste problems. Despite serious opposition amongst the Russian public and the international community, and from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the Russian government has indicated that it will move swiftly to implement the plan's broad outlines.

The passage of the law calls into question the health of Russia's democratic institutions. In September and October 2000 Russian environmental groups collected signatures petitioning that the government hold a referendum on the plan as it was then proposed. According to the Russian constitution, if a group or groups collect two million signatures, the president must call a national and legally binding referendum on the issue in question. Greenpeace Russia, which headed the collection process, claims that 2.49 million signatures were registered on the petition. After a brief period of consideration by the Russian Electoral Commission, however, over 600,000 of the signatures were arbitrarily rejected, leaving only 1,873,216 as "acceptable"—more than 100,000 too few to force President Putin to call a referendum.

No persuasive reason for the commission's rejection of approximately one-quarter of the petition's signatories has been forthcoming, and appeals against the ruling were rejected in Russian courts. Ironically the sponsors of the petition decided to aim for 2.5 million signatures rather than the required two million because they assumed that a 20 percent margin would be too great for the commission to reject on "technical grounds." Furthermore, the law did not proceed through the normal Russian legislative channels: approved by the lower parliament in December 2000, the bill should have been considered by the Federation Council, Russia's upper house, on June 29, 2001. Instead, the chairman of the council signed the bill without tabling it for debate, sending it straight to President Putin's desk for his signature, at which point it became Russian law.

Throughout the two-year process that led to the enactment of the nuclear waste law, observers constantly pointed out the disturbingly obvious point that Russia was in no condition to deal with its own nuclear waste, let alone to accept anyone else's. The country, and the other successor states of the Soviet Union, have been confronted by nuclear security and nuclear waste issues that would tax the resources of an economically powerful state—in the 1990s and beyond, the successors of the Soviet Union were anything but economically powerful.

Commenting on the plan in the July 3, 2001, issue of the Christian Science Monitor, the head of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona (which monitors nuclear waste problems in Russia's far north) Thomas Nilsen said, "I don't think you'll find any place else in the world where spent nuclear fuel is stored in such bad conditions. The first priority should be to secure spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste already existing in Russia. You don't do that by importing more." There is, besides, a fear among opponents that any income generated by the processing, storage, and disposal of international nuclear waste will not be applied in cleanup efforts. Instead, it is feared that profits will finance the construction of nuclear power plants to expand Russia's energy supply.

In order to appreciate the strenuous objections to the new law, it is necessary to examine the present situation regarding nuclear materials, both civilian and military, in the states of the former Soviet Union since the latter's collapse in 1991, and also to sketch the history of Soviet nuclear development during the Cold War. The history of the civilian and military nuclear programs are presented here separately and then examined together in the post-Soviet period. The reader is reminded, however, that the two programs were indeed intertwined throughout their histories and that one affected the other on a constant basis.

Historical Background

Building the Bomb "On a Russian Scale"

Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union during World War II (in Soviet history properly called the Great Patriotic War, from 1941-45), was well aware that the United States was considering the construction of a new kind of weapon—the atomic bomb—even before the initiation of the Manhattan Project in the United States in late 1942. Information had been supplied to the Soviet Union by a German-born but British-naturalized scientist, Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs had been reporting on Britain's experiments in the field in 1941 and 1942. When he joined the Manhattan Project in November 1943 he continued to pass information of high quality to his Soviet contacts. Initially, however, Stalin did not appreciate the significance of the atomic bomb, and he directed that only a small research endeavor should be undertaken.

At most two dozen Soviet scientists, led by physicist Igor Kurchatov (1903-60), worked on the project prior to 1944, and they focused their efforts primarily on the theoretical challenges of nuclear fission. In any case, in 1942 and 1943 the Soviet Union was still hard-pressed in its war with Nazi Germany, and more immediate production priorities, such as tanks and aircraft, occupied center stage. The equipment required by an atomic research program was simply unavailable to Kurchatov and his team.

The reports supplied by Fuchs after his move to Los Alamos, New Mexico (the headquarters of the Manhattan Project), along with the Trinity atomic test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by atomic bombs the following month, all convinced Stalin that the Soviet Union could not afford to fall too far behind the American effort. The Soviet atomic bomb program was therefore reorganized, accelerated and, most of all, dramatically expanded in late 1945.

In January 1946 at a meeting with Kurchatov, Stalin is reported (in notes found in the Archive of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow) to have said it was "not worth spending time and effort on small-scale work." Instead the Soviet scientific and engineering establishment would have to "conduct the work broadly, on a Russian scale, and that in this regard the broadest, utmost assistance" would be provided, especially an "investment of a decisive quantity of resources." It was a statement that signaled a shift of political emphasis: beginning in 1946 the construction of an atomic bomb would be the highest priority of the Soviet Union's political leadership, higher even than reconstruction of the damage inflicted by four years of terrible war with Germany.

Stalin got his bomb, and he got it quickly. In August 1949, only four years after the Manhattan Project had borne fruit in the deserts of New Mexico, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device. Characteristically, the news was kept a secret. It was high-altitude sampling by American aircraft over the Pacific Ocean that detected the unambiguous radioactive evidence of a Soviet nuclear test. The U.S. political and military establishment was shocked; all but the most hawkish of projections had bluntly stated that the Soviet Union would take until the mid-1950s to construct nuclear weapons. The Soviets had beaten those projections by more than five years.

The cost of that rapid development to the Soviet people and the Soviet environment, however, was enormous. It is significant that the man in charge of directing the overall atomic program was Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrentii Beria. Beria's other responsibilities included running the notorious Soviet concentration camp system, or gulag, where political prisoners and other "enemies of the state" were sentenced to long terms of hard labor in unspeakable conditions. Tasked with producing uranium for the atomic bomb program, Beria simply used concentration camp labor to mine and process the radioactive material.

No safety precautions, such as dust masks or protective clothing, were undertaken to shield the prisoners against the dangers of radioactivity. This use of slave labor was extraordinarily profligate in terms of human losses. The scientist Mikhail Klochko suggested that as many as 50,000 to 100,000 lives were lost in the process in the first decade alone, and other authorities concur that casualties were probably in the tens of thousands.

In addition to the mining and semi-processing effort, a series of processing and manufacturing complexes were constructed, almost all of them in the interior of Russia east of the Ural Mountains. These centers, known only by postal code numbers and a name associated with nearby settlements, quickly grew into small cities closed to the outside world. In the late 1940s and 1950s at places like Chelyabinsk-65, Krasnoyarsk-26, and Tomsk-7, a massive research and productive effort grew up involving tens of thousands of engineers, scientists, and common workers.

Unlike the slave labor suffering in the mines, the scientists and engineers lived a cosseted existence by Soviet standards, supplied with the best consumer goods available, provided with lavish housing allowances (again, by Soviet standards), and given generous holiday benefits. Common workers at these sites, however, suffered a far more difficult existence, exposed on a regular basis to radioactive hazards that in many cases proved fatal.

Thus, very early in the program are seen two of the fundamental characteristics of the Soviet atomic effort: its secretiveness, remarkable even in comparison to the top-secret nuclear programs of the United States and, later, those of the United Kingdom and France; and its willingness to pursue whatever means were necessary to produce the required arsenal. Both of these characteristics would profoundly affect the Soviet experience with nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and the waste produced by both programs.

The Expansion and Problems of the Nuclear Weapons Program

When Stalin died in March 1953 the Soviet atomic weapons effort was well advanced. The knowledge and technical expertise derived from the test of August 1949 and its aftermath allowed the burgeoning weapons infrastructure to develop techniques of repetitive and later mass production of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. In 1953 the Red Army received its first shipment of deployable atomic weapons, and in August of that year the Soviet Union surprised the world once again, this time with its test of a thermonuclear (or "hydrogen") bomb, a weapon hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In doing so it demonstrated that the gap with the United States had closed dramatically—the latter had tested its first thermonuclear device not years but only months earlier, in November 1952.

The expanding nuclear weapons infrastructure that supported these remarkable advances was by no means trouble-free, however. Indeed, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the true scale of the nuclear accidents, environmental contamination, and public health impact of the nuclear weapons program has become clear. At Chelyabinsk-65 (now called the Mayak Production Association) alone there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of accidents in the 1940s and 1950s that claimed the lives of many plant workers.

Many of these accidents were caused by the feverish pitch of the work, which emphasized speed over safety and productivity over prudence. For example, if a reactor engaged in the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons became damaged, requiring repairs that would, if handled safely, keep it off-line for a year or more, then workers were sent in to repair it by hand, and to do so unprotected. Such an event occurred in June 1948, according to a September 1999 article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and it involved the replacement of the entire reactor core—by hand—a process that led to "huge doses of radiation" to the personnel involved. But the repairs were completed within two months.

Chelyabinsk-65 was also the site of the largest accident in nuclear history prior to the 1986 accident at Chernobyl. In September 1957 a steel tank holding liquid nuclear waste exploded, spreading radiation over an area of 23,000 square kilometers, or approximately 9,000 square miles, and affecting approximately a quarter of a million people, ten thousand of who had to be permanently evacuated from their homes. As was the case at many other links in the nuclear weapons infrastructural chain, the plutonium and uranium processing at Chelyabinsk-65 was undertaken with little regard for the safe storage of waste. Indeed, for much of the complex's early life, waste generated was simply dumped into nearby rivers and lakes.

The River Techa was the destination for much of this waste, and radiation from Chelyabinsk-65 has been found in waters as far away as the Arctic Ocean, a thousand miles to the north. Closer to home the Techa represented the drinking water supply for approximately 125,000 people: when it became public knowledge that the water was highly radioactive the Soviet government resettled some 7,000 of them. Greenpeace estimates, however, that perhaps 8,000 residents who drew their water from the Techa have died of radiation-induced illnesses.

Similarly, another repository for Chelyabinsk-65's waste has the dubious distinction today of being the most radioactively polluted spot on the planet. For decades liquid and solid waste containing extremely high levels of radioactivity were dumped into Lake Karachay, close to Chelyabinsk-65. In 1967 the lake dried up and winds spread highly radioactive dust across a wide area, affecting tens of thousands of people both directly, as the dust was inhaled or ingested, and indirectly, as it contaminated their livestock and crops. The solution to the problem was typically Soviet: the entire lake-bed was sealed with concrete, a process not completed until the late 1990s.

The situation at Chelyabinsk-65 was not unique. Mismanagement of waste and disregard for safety were common characteristics at most of the nuclear production centers in the Soviet Union. Of course, the glaring question stands out: why was there such recklessness in the nuclear weapons program? The answer to that question is complex and consists of several aspects. First and foremost is the national security issue: the creation and maintenance of a nuclear arsenal comparable to that of the United States was seen by the Soviet leadership as the central guarantee of security during the Cold War. In essence, environmental or health problems were accepted as trade-offs in the creation, expansion, and maintenance of that nuclear arsenal. Second, in Soviet society information was an extraordinarily controlled commodity.

Events such as the accidents at Chelyabinsk that undermined the superiority of communism, or the infallibility of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, were suppressed as a matter of course. Indeed, the initial response of the Soviet leadership to the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 was to "hush it up," to deny that anything serious had happened. It was only when radioactivity was detected in large quantities in northern and western Europe and European experts confronted the Soviet Union with this incontrovertible proof that the true story became known.

Third, a balanced nuclear infrastructure, whether military or civilian, requires the creation of a so-called "complete cycle," involving the production, the processing, and the storage and disposal of by-products and waste. The storage and disposal of nuclear waste is, unfortunately, expensive; it is also crucial for environmental and human health. The Soviet economy could not encompass all three parts of the cycle, and concentrated primarily on weapons production. Whatever funds were left over were applied to the third leg of the cycle. They were not sufficient to do the job. As will be seen, the nuclear problem piled up as the Cold War matured and ended, to the extent that the states that succeeded the Soviet Union simply cannot deal with the problem without external aid in massive amounts.

The Civilian Application of Nuclear Energy in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union laid claim to the first civilian nuclear power station, which became operational at Obninsk, a small city in western Russia, in 1954. This was, however, a reactor primarily involved in the production of nuclear fuel for atomic weaponry, and it was not until the late 1960s that civilian applications of nuclear power began to expand in the Soviet Union. The country was extraordinarily gifted in terms of its fossil fuel resources, and so the rapid expansion of the nuclear power infrastructure after 1970 is somewhat difficult to explain in purely economic terms. There is no doubt, however, that the cutting-edge technology represented by nuclear power was attractive to the Soviet leadership.

During the Cold War, technological prowess was an important indicator of the strength of the communist system, and the broad application of nuclear power could, in the estimation of the Soviet leadership under Leonid Brezhnev (1906-82) and his immediate successors, demonstrate the superiority of the USSR in the world arena. Nuclear energy could also solve a problem confronting the Soviet economy in the 1970s. Although fossil fuel reserves remained vast, the extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas became increasingly concentrated in Siberia—a harsh, difficult, and therefore expensive environment in which to operate. The net costs of energy in the USSR began to rise in the late 1960s and 1970s and the establishment of a nuclear power grid promised to offset these rising costs to some extent.

Soviet nuclear power reactors were developed along two main lines. The first of these, a direct outgrowth of the reactors used by the military for the production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, was a simple type in which the nuclear reaction is "moderated" or controlled by graphite (the same material found in so-called "lead" pencils). The graphite, formed into rods that can be inserted into or withdrawn from the reactor's core, absorbs neutrons produced during the nuclear reaction. The amount of neutrons available governs the rate of the reaction and therefore the amount of power generated: as the rods are inserted, the reaction slows and generates less power, as they are withdrawn the reaction increases and generates more power.

Following experiments conducted at Obninsk in the 1950s and at the Beloyarsk station at Shevchenko (now Aqtau, a town in southwestern Kazakhstan) in the 1960s with graphite-moderated reactors, known by their Russian acronym RBMK, scaled-up commercial RBMK-based power stations were constructed at several sites around the western USSR in the 1970s. Another, larger RBMK plant became operational at Ignalina in Lithuania in 1983, and others were on the drawing board or under construction in the early 1980s.

Despite the fact that the RBMK formed the basis of this rapid expansion in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was nevertheless a profoundly flawed design. It became unstable when generating low levels of power, being prone to sudden "spikes" of energy that could raise the temperature within the reactor and, if unchecked, lead to a meltdown of the core—the so-called "China Syndrome" of popular imagination. Documents released since the collapse of the Soviet Union make it clear that the RBMK's design flaws were well known to both engineers and planners, yet RBMKs were not fitted with a secondary, reinforced concrete containment structure common in Western designs. That such domes were not constructed is again a consequence of economics: the main goal was the construction and operation of the reactor itself; "expensive" safety features were considered secondary in the design.

The other major Soviet reactor type was based on a pressurized-water design that employed water rather than graphite as the reaction moderator. Known as the VVER, this type was widely produced in the 1970s and 1980s, with reactors being constructed in Ukraine, Armenia, Russia, and in satellite states in Eastern Europe. In all, more than fifty VVERs were constructed during the Soviet period.

Though inherently safer than the RBMK design, VVERs nevertheless fall far short of western safety standards. Most lack secondary containment structures and they have poor emergency shutdown facilities. A measure of their unacceptability may be seen in the fact that, upon German unification in 1990, West German nuclear specialists inspected and then hurriedly shut down all five Soviet-designed VVERs that had been operating on East German soil. Other Eastern European countries that still operate VVERs have come under heavy pressure from the western community since 1989 to shut down their reactors for the same reason.

Despite safety questions the VVER design was nevertheless seen as the centerpiece of Soviet nuclear power in the foreseeable future. Indeed, in the 1980s the future looked bright for the Soviet nuclear industry. New plants, based on VVER reactors, were being commissioned throughout the Soviet bloc, and dozens more were under construction or on the drawing board. Rosy projections foresaw nuclear power accounting for almost one-third of the Soviet Union's electrical generating capacity by the year 2000, and over half of the capacity for East European satellite states such as Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. These projections and indeed the entire Soviet nuclear industry were thrown into chaos by the catastrophic accident at the No. 4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986 (see sidebar). Many reactors under construction were suspended indefinitely whilst those on the drawing board were cancelled outright. Other plants underwent extensive modifications that improved their safety to a certain degree but not to western standards.

The Chernobyl accident had a profound impact on Soviet society. Many commentators agree that the magnitude of the event undermined the authority of the Communist Party (under whose leadership such calamities were not supposed to happen). It unleashed long-simmering bitterness among the constituent republics of the Soviet Union—especially in Ukraine, on whose soil the accident occurred—against Moscow. It awakened an environmental consciousness among Soviet citizens, and it highlighted general economic and social ills in the Soviet Union. There is no doubt that Chernobyl forced a dramatic shift in Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, pushing them much further, and much faster, than Gorbachev and his reformist allies had intended. It is perhaps too much to claim, as some commentators have done, that Chernobyl "caused" the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, it is important not to underestimate its impact either.

Chernobyl gave the Soviet people a basis upon which they could criticize other broad failures of the communist system. It was that attack upon its legitimacy that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was unable to weather. Indeed, a last desperate attempt by communist hard-liners to "turn the clock back" on reform by ousting Gorbachev in August 1991 collapsed into farce as the army, the secret police, and the common citizenry simply refused to acquiesce in the face of this tawdry bid for power. Once the party itself was stripped of authority in real terms, the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself—which had been held together in large part by the threat of force or its application—was inevitable.

The Nuclear Hangover: Post-Soviet Nuclear Power Issues in the 1990s

Ironically, the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union was, relatively speaking, quite kind to the nuclear industry there. The 1990s were marked by sharp declines in the output of fossil fuels (crude oil production fell by almost half between 1988 and 1995, for example), as the energy sector struggled in times of economic chaos and deep cash shortages. Massive debts accrued to the energy sector as a whole, as consumers—from individual households to large industrial complexes—simply stopped paying their power bills. To a certain extent the nuclear industry was insulated from the most serious economic hardships by foreign aid, especially from the United States and, though shrunken from its high point in the mid-1980s, it still produced over 11 percent of Russia's electrical power in 1995 and output actually increased, albeit slowly, as the 1990s progressed.

Not surprisingly this performance led to the nuclear industry being hailed domestically as the answer to Russia's energy problems. In 1992 the Russian nuclear power industry (Rosenergoatom) announced that reactors whose construction had been suspended in the aftermath of Chernobyl would be completed and new reactors brought on line as well. However, the upbeat projections failed to take account of economic reality: Russia simply did not have the economic wherewithal to pay for such an expansion, and in the end only one of the long list of reactors was completed, at the Balakovo power station.

In other successor states of the Soviet Union the nuclear energy situation was, and remains, more complex. Ukraine, under heavy pressure to close the remaining three reactors at the Chernobyl plant, engaged in a long, difficult series of negotiations with the international community for aid to do so, and to construct coal-fired plants to replace Chernobyl's generating capacity. It took almost a decade and a $3.2 billion international pledge, but the last reactor at Chernobyl was finally shut down in December 2000. The problem facing Ukraine, Lithuania, and Armenia—states that had inherited nuclear power plants from the Soviet period—is that, relatively speaking, those plants generate much more of the state's electrical power than is the case in Russia.

Ukraine relies on its 13 remaining nuclear power stations for about one-third of the country's electricity; Lithuania's old and unsafe Ignalina plant accounts for about three-quarters of that state's electrical capacity; and the Metsamor plant in Armenia meets approximately 40 percent of the country's electricity requirements. Thus, shutting down the reactors is not a straightforward proposition: doing so will lead to a serious reduction in energy output, with the likelihood of economic instability to follow. Bilateral negotiations have therefore focused on replacing that energy shortfall, either through the building of fossil-fuel plants or through energy imports financed by Western credits.

Further compounding the nuclear power problem in these successor states is that none of them possess significant fuel reprocessing or waste storage facilities on their territory. During the Soviet period, as we have seen, those complexes were located on Russian soil; after the collapse of the Soviet Union other successor states had to conclude not always equitable agreements for their use. In any case, the reprocessing and storage facilities inherited by Russia were in an appalling state in their own right.

Nuclear Weapons, Waste Problems, and the Western Response

The August coup of 1991 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union had an extraordinarily important side effect, the significance of which was not apparent at the time. In short, deeply disturbed by the implications of the coup, American legislators moved to establish a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and Soviet successor states covering nuclear weapons security, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear waste control. This range of agreements is the outstanding example of cooperation between the United States and the successor states of the Soviet Union.

The coup convinced U.S. politicians that it was in the best security interests of the United States to aid the Soviet Union in controlling its nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure. Upon the collapse of the USSR a few months later those plans were targeted towards the Soviet successor states. In its original form the assistance package, called the Nunn-Lugar program after its sponsors, senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, called for Department of Defense funding of up to $400 million per year to assist the Soviet Union with the dismantling of a significant portion of its nuclear weapons arsenal as dictated by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of July 1991. A highly popular bipartisan initiative, the Nunn-Lugar proposal passed the Senate by a vote of 86 to 8 and passed by acclamation in Congress.

Under the administration of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) the Nunn-Lugar program was dramatically expanded and converted into a broad range of initiatives designed to aid the Soviet successor states not simply with dismantling nuclear weapons but with problems arising in the nuclear energy sector, with waste and reprocessing facilities, and with a potential "brain drain" of nuclear weapons specialists to emerging nuclear states such as Iraq or Iran. The umbrella covering these initiatives is known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) regime, and between 1992 and 2001 more than $3 billion was transferred to the former Soviet Union under its auspices. It is by far the largest bilateral assistance program undertaken by the United States towards its former Cold War adversary.

Without that assistance, it is difficult to imagine just how serious the nuclear situation in the former Soviet Union might have become. It is impossible briefly to provide a comprehensive description of the state of the ex-Soviet nuclear infrastructure in the 1990s; however, a few examples may serve to illustrate the breadth, complexity, and gravity of the situation facing the Soviet successor states after 1991.

Kazakhstan: The Reluctant Nuclear Power. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan suddenly found itself to be the world's third-largest nuclear weapons power. Most of the USSR's powerful SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile force was located on Kazakh soil, a force that comprised some 1,400 nuclear warheads—at least twice as many as the arsenals of the United Kingdom, France, and China combined. United States CTR programs and funding totaling $98.3 million facilitated the transfer of all warheads and missiles to Russia by 1995. In an operation entitled "Project Sapphire" and worthy of a spy novel, Department of Defense and Department of Energy personnel cooperated with the Kazakh government to spirit approximately 1,300 pounds of poorly secured, highly enriched uranium (enough for some 30 to 40 nuclear weapons) out of Kazakhstan in conditions of high security and absolute secrecy in the fall of 1994. The Kazakh government cooperated fully with the operation, partly because it did not want the material on its soil, and partly because the United States government reputedly paid approximately $100 million in cash and aid programs for the material. Department of Energy personnel involved in the transfer reported that almost all of the uranium could have been used almost "as-is" in a nuclear weapon.

Norway Nearly Causes World War III. Unbeknownst to most people, the highest level of nuclear crisis alert since the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in the early morning hours of January 25, 1995, when Russia believed it was possibly the victim of a sneak nuclear attack. A missile track suddenly appeared on Russian radar; emanating from an unknown location in the Arctic Ocean, the radar signature was similar to one that would be produced by a ballistic missile launched by a submarine lurking off Russia's northern coast. Such a missile attack, from "close by," gives minimal warning time and was therefore the standard strategy (well known to both superpowers) for opening a surprise nuclear attack during the Cold War. Russia's President Boris Yeltsin was awakened and alerted. For the first time in history Russia's nuclear "briefcase," through which civil authorities can communicate with their nuclear command-and-control infrastructure and order a nuclear weapons launch, was activated. Apparently, heated conversations between the president and his military staff ensued over the next ten minutes, as Yeltsin decided how to respond to this nuclear attack.

Only it was not a nuclear attack. The "missile" was in fact a rocket launched from Andoya in northern Norway carrying instruments to study the northern lights, part of an ongoing (and public) U.S.-Norwegian scientific program. Following standard procedure, both the United States and Norway had notified Russia of the rocket's launch time and trajectory profile several weeks earlier, but the message had somehow been lost after delivery and had never reached the proper authorities in Russia. Fortunately Yeltsin chose caution over launching Russian nuclear missiles against the United States.

After eight minutes of tracking, at which point only seconds remained before a Russian strike would have to be launched in response to the "attack," radar operators saw the "missile" reach its highest altitude, then fall back to earth far from Russian territory. Crisis was averted, but many commentators have argued that this event was an extraordinarily close-run thing; perhaps the closest the world had come to nuclear war. While it is true that Russian nuclear command-and-control functioned as it should have in the crisis—after all, no Russian missiles were launched—it must also be acknowledged that the crisis arose as a consequence of problems in that very system, as information vital to Russian national security was simply lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth.

The Arctic Ocean's "Slow Chernobyl." Scattered along the Arctic coastline of northwestern Russia are a series of decrepit naval bases, once home to the vaunted Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia inherited those bases and the naval vessels that comprised the fleet. Many of the vessels were nuclear powered, and throughout the 1990s Russia strove to find a way to deal with naval nuclear reactors and nuclear waste produced by decades of military mismanagement.

Roughly 300 nuclear reactors (some 20 percent of the world's total) are located in the region, along with tens of thousands of poorly maintained spent fuel elements, and a very large quantity of other assorted nuclear waste. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia found itself facing a decommissioning crisis. As late as 1998 almost two hundred nuclear-powered vessels awaited disposal, including approximately one hundred inactive nuclear submarines that lay tied up at dock or beached at shallow, isolated moorings, still requiring the removal of their nuclear fuel.

The condition of the submarines in particular deteriorated sharply in the 1990s. In some cases they have to be pumped with compressed air on a regular basis in order to remain afloat. Others simply sank at anchor; the condition of their reactors is unknown. While it would probably take decades for radioactivity to leak into the surrounding environment, the deteriorating condition of the vessels is cause for serious concern, as dilapidation sharply increases the problems (and costs) of decommissioning in the future.

This situation arose quite simply because Russia does not possess the decommissioning facilities nor the reprocessing capacity to handle the dozens of reactors and fuel that will be produced by the decommissioning process. In the early 1990s Minatom, the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy, banned the use of the sealed casks that had been employed to transport naval nuclear waste to reprocessing sites at Chelyabinsk and elsewhere.

Unable to transport fuel elements that had been removed from submarines, the navy simply stored them in sites ranging in sophistication from semi-specialized facilities to shallow trenches dug in isolated areas on bases along the coast. According to the British Foreign Office, it will take decades to dispose of the nuclear material scattered along Russia's northwestern coastline, and it will be extremely expensive—perhaps $4 million to decommission each submarine, and tens or hundreds of millions more to move the nuclear material stored on land or on barges and deal with the current radioactive contamination.

These examples are provided to illustrate the two main problems that face Russia and the other successor states of the USSR. First, the Soviet-era nuclear infrastructure was unable to cope with the reprocessing and decommissioning requirements generated by nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and military nuclear reactors. The second problem was created by the economic crises faced by Soviet successor states in the 1990s: confronted by the more pressing problems of transition to a capitalist economy and dealing with the systemic economic and social dilapidation inherited from the Soviet period, nuclear issues were frequently marginalized or ignored altogether.

Fixing the Problem at the Turn of the Century

The CTR program analysts quickly identified the depth of the problems and recognized that the fundamental first step in solving the nuclear crisis on a long-term basis was to upgrade Russia's reprocessing facilities; they were clearly the bottleneck that was choking even a partial solution to nuclear waste problems. Accordingly in 1992 the Mayak Fissile-Material Storage Facility (FMSF) initiative was added as part of the CTR program. This helped Russia build a large-scale facility at Mayak (the former Chelyabinsk-65) for the storage of plutonium and uranium from dismantled nuclear weapons. In all, approximately $450 million was allocated from U.S. sources for the construction of the site, with an opening date of 2002.

The FMSF was key to helping Russia meet its strategic arms reduction obligations which, according to the START I treaty signed by President George Bush (1989-1992) and President Mikhail Gorbachev, limited both the US and USSR to 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads. The establishment of a facility specializing in the storage of weapons-grade nuclear material would also lighten the burden on the rest of Russia's reprocessing infrastructure, allowing it to handle more material from the Ukrainian and Eastern European nuclear power programs, the Northern Fleet, and elsewhere. Thus, the FMSF and other facilities like it were seen as the keystone in any Russian plan to solve its nuclear waste and nuclear disarmament difficulties.

The FMSF program, however, has not been trouble-free. The facility as constructed possesses a much smaller capacity than originally intended, and the Russian government has insisted on converting the material to be stored there into a form that makes it almost impossible to identify it as originating in nuclear weapons. It has claimed that this is to prevent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials, who would inspect the FMSF, from learning "state secrets" about Russia's nuclear weapons (the IAEA is a civilian organization).

This conversion to "generic" material means that it would be theoretically possible for the Russian government, if it so chose, to store material processed from commercial reactors or other non-weapons sources at the FMSF, in contravention of agreements concluded with the United States. It is even possible that material brought into the country under the new policy on importing nuclear waste could be semi-processed and stored at the FMSF, a policy that would violate both the letter and the spirit of the 1992 CTR initiative, jeopardizing both future FMSF funds and, probably, other CTR program funding as well.

The FMSF is in any case a storage facility, not a disposal site. In order to meet the disposal requirements of as much as 22,000 tons of waste over ten years, as outlined in the July 2001 law, a final location for the nuclear waste needs to be identified. At present the Russian government is considering an underground disposal strategy at one of four potential sites on Russian territory. These sites were being evaluated for their suitability, but prior to the passage of the nuclear waste acceptance law no final decision had been made as to which site was likely to be selected. Furthermore, the construction of such burial facilities will be expensive and the CTR program may not fund them if problems with the FMSF continue.

Recent History and the Future

Facing Realities

Whether the 2001 law on importing and processing nuclear waste translates into policy or not, it is clear that there are other, more fundamental issues facing Russia and the other successor states of the Soviet Union in the twenty-first century. Almost every part of the former Soviet Union is profoundly affected by the appalling Soviet nuclear legacy. None of the Soviet successor states is capable of solving the environmental, social, political, or health effects of that legacy through an application of its own resources. Nor will those effects disappear in the near term; radioactivity is a deeply pernicious and persistent phenomenon with an impact that lasts for generations, centuries, and, if unchecked, potentially for thousands of years. In short, it is not a phenomenon that can be ignored or simply wished away.

The government of Belarus is trying to do just that—returning formerly closed land to the plow in the south of the country, land heavily contaminated with cesium and strontium from the Chernobyl disaster. The decision is prompted by unavoidable economics: in 1995 the government spent approximately 20 percent of its entire national budget on combating the effects of Chernobyl. By 2000, although the health and environmental situation in the republic had not markedly improved, that figure had been slashed to 10 percent. The government simply could not maintain the necessary funding levels and so pretended that the problem was evaporating. A similar situation occurred in Ukraine, in which spending on Chernobyl's aftermath fell from 13 percent of budget in 1994 to only 4 percent by 2000.

In the chaos of the 1990s the nuclear waste issue was usually under-represented in political and economic calculations, as it had been during the Soviet period. Yet there was, and there remains, one vital difference between the 1950s and the 1990s: in the 1950s Western aid to the Soviet Union, the intractable enemy, would have been unthinkable. In the 1990s and beyond the Soviet Union has been replaced by a collection of states attempting, in a very real sense, to put the past behind them. As we have seen, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program initiated by the United States in the early 1990s and which continues today is without doubt the outstanding example of cooperation between the former Cold War enemy superpowers.

Despite problems that have cropped up with the Mayak Fissile-Material Storage Facility, on the whole Russia and other recipient states have adhered scrupulously to spending conditions and oversight mechanisms established by the United States. This behavior has been mirrored in almost all of the bilateral and multilateral agreements concluded between other Western states and Japan on the one hand and Soviet successor states on the other. The aid regime is therefore one of goodwill and trust but it is, unfortunately, still too narrow to tackle the full magnitude of the problem. The full cost of cleaning up the Soviet-era nuclear mess will certainly run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. That money will have to derive from further external aid: there is no realistic internal economic revival that can create wealth on such a scale.

A final characteristic of radioactivity is worth mentioning: as the world saw in 1986, radioactivity does not respect national borders. The farming industry in northern England is still affected by Chernobyl radioactivity, as are traditional reindeer-herding peoples in Scandinavia. Norway is deeply concerned that its fishing industry could be badly contaminated by nuclear waste leaking from submarines on the Kola peninsula. If the Soviet nuclear legacy is not solved, sooner or later it will affect peoples around the northern hemisphere.

Responding to the passage of the Russian nuclear waste law, John Reppert, head of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, noted in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor on July 3, 2001, that if Russia is "going to create the world's largest and least-safe nuclear-waste dump, then it will be a long-term consequence for the rest of the world." Russia is doing so precisely because it has identified a financial incentive of roughly $20 billion, income that is desperately needed; rather than condemn Russia, a far more prudent international response would be to advance that money in the form of aid in return for a guarantee that no importation of nuclear waste would occur. Such an international policy would be sensible not only in the short term but in the long term as well. As Carl Sagan stated in the early 1980s (in the context of reducing the numbers of the nuclear weapons whose manufacture produced the waste with which Russia and its neighbors now struggle), such a policy would not merely be wise, it would be "an expression of elementary planetary hygiene."


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Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

Josephson, Paul. Red Atom: Russia's Nuclear Power Program from Stalin to Today. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1999.

Marples, David R. Chernobyl and Nuclear Power in the USSR. London: Macmillan, 1986.

——. The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Marples, David R., and Marilyn J. Young, eds. Nuclear Energy and Security in the Former Soviet Union. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Nilsen, Thomas, Igor Kudrik, and Aleksandr Nikitin. The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination. Bellona Report No. 2, August 28, 1996. Available online at

Peterson, D. J. Troubled Lands: The Legacy of Soviet Environmental Destruction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Tikhonov, Valentin. Russia's Nuclear and Missile Complex: The Human Factor in Proliferation. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2001. Available online at

Wolfsthal, Jon Brook, Cristina-Astrid Chuen, and EmilyEwell Daughtry, eds. Nuclear Status Report: Nuclear Weapons, Fissile Material, and Export Controls in the Former Soviet Union. Washington, DC: Monterey Institute of International Studies and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2001. Available online at and

David F. Duke


1942-43 The Soviet Union begins work on an atomic bomb project.

July 1945 United States tests atomic device at Alamo-gordo, New Mexico.

August 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, are destroyed by atomic weapons.

August 1949 The Soviet Union tests its first atomic device.

November 1952 The United States tests a thermonu-clear device.

August 1953 The Soviet Union tests its first thermonu-clear device.

1954 The Soviet Union's first "commercial reactor" begins producing energy at Obninsk.

August 1957 The first Soviet nuclear-powered submarine, the Leninskii Komsomol, is launched.

September 1957 An accident at Mayak storage site releases large amounts of radioactivity.

1971-72 The first commercial VVER-440 reactors go on-line at Novovoronezh.

1973 The first commercial RBMK reactor goes on-line at Sosnovy Bor, near Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

March 1985 Mikhail S. Gorbachev becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

April 1986 An accident in Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station contaminates large areas of the western Soviet Union and eastern and western Europe. Nuclear power plant construction is halted while the accident is investigated.

August 1991 A failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership destroys the central communist authority in the Soviet Union. Belarus and Ukraine declare their independence.

December 1991 Gorbachev resigns as general secretary, recognizes the end of the Soviet Union.

1991-92 The Nunn-Lugar aid program to the SovietUnion and its successor states is established.

1993 The Cooperative Threat Reduction nonproliferation assistance program is developed by the United States. More than $3 billion in assistance is transferred to the successor states of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

January 1995 A Norwegian scientific rocket placesRussia on its highest level of nuclear alert.

July 2001 President Vladimir Putin of Russia approves a law allowing for the importation of approximately 20,000 tons of foreign nuclear waste for cash.

Andrei Sakharov

1921-1989 The man most responsible for the development of Soviet thermonuclear weaponry was the gifted Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. Born in 1921, he was brought into the atomic weapons program in 1948 by Igor Kurchatov. Sakharov derived many innovative solutions to problems encountered on the road to developing the so-called "superbomb." By his own admission, he worried little about the moral or philosophical implications of his early work. As time passed, however, Sakharov became more uncomfortable with his role as developer of "better" nuclear weapons for the defense of the nation. He became increasingly aware of the human costs of building and testing the weapons. He eventually openly criticized the Soviet policy of atmospheric nuclear testing in the aftermath of a truly gargantuan 50-megaton-plus test on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya in October 1961.

After criticizing this test and others, Sakharov was barred from direct involvement with the Soviet weapons program. In 1968 he published an essay entitled "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom," which called for the elimination of nuclear weapons and the establishment of political pluralism in the Soviet Union. After the essay appeared internationally, he lost all of the privileges accorded a member of the scientific elite, and became an "enemy of the Soviet state." As a dissident Sakharov continually spoke out against human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. Consequently when he won the Nobel Peace Prize of 1975, Sakharov was prevented from traveling to receive the award. His wife Elena Bonner accepted the prize on his behalf.

In 1980 Sakharov criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for which he was exiled to the city of Gorki and prevented from contacting the outside world. In 1986 he was recalled to Moscow by Mikhail Gorbachev, where he became a tireless supporter of democratic change in the Soviet system. When he died in December 1989 while working as a member of a committee tasked with drafting a new, democratic constitution for the USSR, the nation lost perhaps its most powerful moral statesmen.


The accident that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 90 miles north of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, at 1:23 AM on April 26, 1986, was the worst nuclear accident in history. An ill-conceived test of Reactor No. 4's safety equipment produced a power surge (to which the RBMK design was particularly vulnerable) that resulted in a steam explosion in the reactor's core. The lid of the reactor and the roof of the reactor building were blown off by the explosion, and graphite from the reactor's core sparked fires in and around the building. Immediate casualties—plant workers and fire-fighters—totaled 31, a casualty figure for the accident that is still used in certain circles today.

For days the exposed reactor burned, spewing unprecedented amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Although it was detectable around the northern hemisphere, most of the radioactivity was concentrated in Belarus and Ukraine. Of particular concern were the radionuclides Iodine-131, which causes cancer of the thyroid, especially in children, and Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, both of which are concentrated in the food chain and cause a variety of cancers in humans, most notably leukemia. The zone immediately around the Chernobyl plant itself in northern Ukraine and the southern part of Belarus was worst affected: according to official statistics, and despite widespread evacuations totaling hundreds of thousands of people, approximately two million Ukrainians and two million Belarusians still live in areas suffering from contamination.

Direct casualties of the accident are much higher than the 31 reported at the time. According to David Marples, an expert on the accident and its aftermath, between 5,000 and 15,000 of the young men conscripted to clean up the region around the Chernobyl plant have died of a variety of causes, such as heart attacks, that should not affect people in their twenties and thirties. Total numbers of these so-called "liquidators" are exceedingly hard to determine, but there were somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000 involved in the operation. About 50 percent of the cleanup workers living in Ukraine are subject to various illnesses, including skin diseases and digestive and pulmonary problems. In addition, thyroid cancer rates have sharply increased in Ukraine and Belarus among those who were young children and teenagers at the time of the accident. The long-term health effects of the accident remain unknown, but many projections are grave.

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Russia Agrees to Take the world's Nuclear Waste: But Where to Put it

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