On the north coast of the desolate Kola Peninsula – three nuclear submarines lie rusting in the icy waters of Snezhnogorsk. These submarines will never again be used; in that sense, their presence is good news. But those with responsibility for looking after them fear that these vessels, and dozens of others like them, could yet cause a catastrophe, which would make the Chernobyl disaster pale into insignificance. Two years ago, when he was U.K. Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook promised £5m to help with the nuclear clean-up in the Murmansk region, as part of a larger programme in the former Soviet Union, where environmental considerations always came bottom of the list. None of the money has been delivered and Russians believe it may be too late.
Yuri Yevdokimov, governor of the Murmansk region, says: "I don't want to be rude. But I think that few people in Europe have appreciated the nature of the real risk." Until recently, the Nerpa submarine repair yard at Snezhnogorsk was absolutely off limits. Even now, you sense that the plant managers are wary of their own bravery in opening the rusting gates. And yet they reckon they have little option. They want the rest of the world to help them stave off the danger of nuclear apocalypse – and they believe that the danger is real. Pavel Steblin, director of the plant, says: "God forbid that a tragedy should happen here. But if it does, the world would be involved."
This week the local electricity company has threatened to cut off the power supply to the base because it is almost a year in arrears. If the pumps which keep the submarines afloat with compressed air are switched off, there is a danger of the vessels sinking at the piers where they are moored. These submarines are only part of a much larger problem in the Murmansk region. There are 200 nuclear reactors and 80 nuclear submarines waiting to be decommissioned, throughout the region; the Northern Fleet has its main base at Severomorsk, west of Murmansk. The Lepse, an old Soviet supply ship in the Murmansk bay, has hundreds of spent nuclear fuel assemblies on board. Alexander Ruzankin, chairman of the nuclear conversion and radiation safety committee for the region, says: "I don't know of any technology that could treat that boat properly." And yet, if the rusting Lepse were to sink, it would unleash radioactivity on a catastrophic scale.
The Russians calculate that a total of $1.5bn is needed to get the nuclear problems of the Barents Sea region safely under control. Russia itself, it is generally agreed, cannot possibly afford to foot the whole bill. Other money comes from the Norwegians, the Americans, and the European Union.