Originally created 11/10/99

Russian navy a reluctant partner in nuclear clean-up operation



ARKHANGELSK, Russia -- Nikolai Birillo was trained to end the world, not clean it up.

Birillo, a vice admiral in the Russian navy, ran patrols on nuclear submarines for 23 years, carrying missiles and torpedoes tipped with atomic warheads.

Now he sits on a cleanup committee that receives handouts from the United States and Norway to dismantle the subs in an environmentally friendly manner at Arkhangelsk, less than 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It's a role Birillo seems reluctant to play.

"We aren't technically backward," he said, bristling when asked about the foreign aid that's being provided because Russia is too poor to pay for the work itself.

Since the 1991 Soviet breakup, the United States and other Western countries have provided several billion dollars to help Russia dismantle and destroy its weapons of mass destruction under arms control agreements.

The program is widely viewed as a success by both sides, although it has moved more slowly than anticipated in some cases. Environmentalists have long pointed to the derelict subs moored at this region's shipyards, many of which are little more than weed-overgrown derelicts themselves.

A senior Russian official said Tuesday that 18 nuclear submarines will be dismantled next year and new techniques are being developed to speed up the process. Valery Lebedev, deputy minister of atomic energy, said existing methods "do not permit rapid disposal," according to the Interfax news agency, but gave no details.

The news will please environmental groups, which want to see the pace of work quicken, fearing that the risk of a nuclear accident grows the longer abandoned submarines are allowed to deteriorate. Current plans call for some 125 Russian nuclear submarines to be dismantled by 2010.

An accident would endanger not just Russian territory, but neighboring countries and the Barents Sea, the groups say.

With its severe financial problems, Russia generally welcomes the foreign help, but officials worried about security have grumbled about opening secret facilities to outsiders.

Years of negotiations were required before the dismantling of leaky and rusting nuclear submarines began last year. The program gained momentum in September with the opening of new facilities to handle nuclear waste.

U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen visited Arkhangelsk earlier this fall as work began on dismantling the first Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine, one of the largest submarines ever built, and capable of carrying up to 200 nuclear warheads.

Much of the work will take place in the shipyards outside Arkhangelsk.

The region houses the largest concentration of nuclear reactors anywhere in the world. Crumbling concrete tenement houses and potholed streets look out on broken-down nuclear submarines.

In the bay, a huge, dark object wallows in white-capped waves. A closer look reveals it's a submarine almost two football fields long, the huge cylinder riding low in the water.

Foreign visitors are not allowed to get any closer, because the navy still wants to maintain some of the secrecy that shrouded the Soviet submarine program. The navy has also been reluctant to acknowledge the potential environmental dangers.

But environmental groups say that risks abound. The submarines contain radioactive waste and noxious gases that are both dangerous and costly to handle.

Dismantling a single submarine costs about $10 million, according to estimates by officials in the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The program, established in 1992, pays for decommissioning Russian weapons of mass destruction.

When taking apart a submarine, the biggest risk comes when a crane operator hoists the chunky steel lid off the nuclear reactor compartment.

"You've got to hope that everything is OK underneath," said Josh Handler, a former Greenpeace researcher living in Moscow. Often, radioactive gas gushes out.

Liquid missile fuel also poses a threat, giving off gases so toxic they can kill if inhaled, said Luke Kluchko, an American official with the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in Moscow.

"Taking apart a nuclear-driven sub is tricky business," he said.

At the Arkhangelsk navy yard, Birillo, the vice admiral, accompanied visitors on a tour of a museum dedicated to nuclear submarines. He ran his hand over smooth, stainless-steal periscopes and intricate gyroscopes.

"I know this equipment well," he said, clearly proud of the technology.

But when asked about the waste problem, he replied angrily, "We don't have a problem."