Hot water

Of the 118 dead sailors aboard Russia’s Kursk submarine, 12 have finally been brought to the surface. On the body of one was an officer’s report that 23 sailors survived the initial accident. The Kursk disaster appalled the world; more horrifying is the news that so many men could have been saved. More horrifying still is the long-term security and environmental threat posed by the entire Russian Northern Fleet in which Kursk was an elite sub. The fleet includes 100 decommissioned vessels, each bearing weapons-usable nuclear materials and radioactive nuclear reactors. Thirty are crumbling into the sea.

The state of its nuclear fleet is but one aspect of Russia’s larger nuclear-waste problem. Economic collapse in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise has left Russia with a total budget smaller than New York City’s, including a defense budget of $4.5 billion (the U.S. military has $268 billion). Yet Russia remains the world’s second most potent nuclear power. It cannot maintain its immense nuclear arsenal, or assure the safety of those who work with or live near such weapons. The international community has a keen self-interest in helping the cleanup before we are confronted with many more tragedies even worse than the Kursk.

Work has already begun. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is using the example of the deteriorating nuclear subs to rally global assistance through Green Cross International, the environmental organization he now heads. The cost of cleaning up the Northern Fleet is upwards of $2 billion. Europe, remembering Chernobyl, along with Japan, which shares Russia’s waters, are alarmed by the potential for environmental catastrophe. Japan has donated funds to Green Cross and Britain has announced an £80-million aid package to eliminate naval nuclear waste: "Nuclear hazards," observes British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, "do not recognize international boundaries."

In the United States, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is lobbying for more U.S. assistance. Since 1991, the Nunn-Lugar Act has provided material aid and expertise to help states of the former Soviet Union destroy five thousand nuclear warheads, close nuclear test sites, and transfer uranium to safe storage. (The program has already eliminated all nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.) The scope of the naval cleanup has been limited: twelve submarines carrying strategic nuclear weapons have been dismantled, with twenty-two more slated for destruction. Senator Lugar now wants to expand funding to eliminate not only submarines with weapons that can hit U.S. cities, but those of the decaying Northern Fleet as well. Lugar argues that attempts to sell nuclear materials and technological innovations on the clandestine market, coupled with weak Russian policing, make these decommissioned subs a serious threat to U.S. security.

Although it is unrealistic to expect that the Non-Proliferation Treaty could be amended to include nuclear submarines, the United States and Russia should agree to curb the spread of such weapons systems. The Kursk joins seven other nuclear subs on the ocean floor: four Russian, two American, and one French; at least two have leaked plutonium. Adding to the complexity of this issue is the fact that other countries are acquiring nuclear subs: Brazil is developing its first nuclear attack submarine; Pakistan is trying to buy subs that can be fitted with nuclear weapons; with Russia’s assistance, India is developing a submarine reactor; and Russia is aiding China in expanding its small nuclear fleet. Can any of these countries support the significant long-term perils of nuclear submarines: the huge and ongoing costs of managing spent fuel, eliminating radioactive waste, disposing of reactor components? Do they have the will? Do they even have the democratic civic structures and citizens’ groups that will demand caution and constraints?

Lugar’s proposal for expanded aid to Russia is far-sighted and necessary; however, no one is suggesting that Russia be given a blank check. By omission and commission, Russia has been spreading nuclear-sub technology. Official misinformation, delay, and bungling over the Kursk demonstrated, as the whole world watched, how desperately Russia needs institutions that will hold its leaders accountable. (The courts have vigorously prosecuted a navy officer, Alexander Nikitin, who first exposed the problems of the Northern Fleet. Nikitin was cleared only in September of charges of espionage and treason after a five-year judicial ordeal.) The United States can help by making sure that Russia adheres to agreed-upon cleanup schedules, and guarantees full access for international monitors at U.S.-funded cleanup sites.

A great irony of the Kursk disaster is that it came at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin was making small steps toward achieving a rational reduction of Russia’s enormous, collapsing military. Reform, of course, is an affair of increments. However, in a nuclear age, prolonged waiting is a dangerous luxury. Senator Lugar rightly argues for immediate U.S. action. "History has given us the window of opportunity to destroy these weapons and it behooves us to be as creative as possible, working in a bipartisan way, to get the job done. Russia doesn’t have the money to do this. It is not going to happen without us."

Published in the 2000-11-17 issue: 
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