Last updated: June 25, 2019
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Introduction

During the 1990s, protection of the Arctic marine environment has attracted intense political attention, engaging diplomats, parliamentarians, researchers and non-governmental organisations across the Arctic rim–and well beyond. The disclosure of Soviet dumping of radioactive waste in the Barents and Kara Seas is among the main reasons for this. It is now clear that such dumping has been conducted for decades – by the Northern Fleet as well as by the civilian Murmansk Shipping Company, the operator of nuclear-run icebreakers in the Northern Sea Route. Measured at the time of disposal, the total radioactivity dumped into Arctic seas by the Soviet Union is twice as high as that of all previously known dumping worldwide. The most intensely radioactive type of waste stems from nuclear vessel reactors which still contain high-level spent fuel. Parts of this dumping occurred in violation of Soviet commitments to the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Convention). This paper aims to disclose some past and preset problematic aspects of radioactive waste in the areas of Barents and Kara Seas, the arctic marine regions. Paper’s argument also states that Soviet and later Russian management of nuclear waste in the north has been significantly influenced by regulations and programmes generated under international dumping regulations and instruments.

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Dilemma of Radioactive Waste

More than five decades after the first controlled nuclear fission, no one has come up with a widely accepted solution to the problem of how to deal with the most highly radioactive products–high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “high-level waste” comprises irradiated reactor fuel, liquid or solidified wastes from the first solvent extraction cycle of chemical reprocessing (or equivalent processes) of such fuel, or any other matter of activity concentration exceeding certain limits specified for alpha, beta/gamma, and tritium emitters. Globally, the spent fuel produced by the military sector is modest compared to that from the civilian sector, but in the north, the nuclear waste dumped by the Soviet Union in Arctic seas is chiefly of military origin. As documented in the Yablokov Report, a Russian governmental White Paper published in 1993, as many as sixteen nuclear reactors have been dumped in the Kara Sea since 1965; seven of these are especially dangerous because of a failure to remove spent fuel prior to disposal (Yablokov et al, 1993, p.19). In addition, large amounts of low- and medium-level solid waste have been dumped by the Northern Fleet in flimsy metal containers that are highly liable to corrosion. And liquid waste – like water used in cooling, incineration or deactivation of radioactive installations  -has been disposed of in the Barents Sea since the mid-1960s. This past dumping is a matter of substantial concern in Russia and its neighbouring states as well. Various remedial measures have been considered, including sealing, capping and retrieval for storage on land (OTA, 1995, p.69). Such action, however, may itself involve great hazards and would definitely be very costly. Measurements at several sites in the Barents and Kara Seas, including the dump-sites for hot reactors in some bays of Novaya Zemlya, indicate that so far there has not been significant release of radioactivity into the marine environment. Indeed, levels in these seas are comparatively low, and certainly much lower than in the Black Sea or the Baltic. Simulation models suggest that even a worst-case scenario of rapid release of all the dumped activity would not result in considerable danger to marine food-chains, although local-scale effects would need to be studied more. These conclusions should be seen as preliminary, as considerable uncertainty attends both the rate of release and the transport models underlying them (OTA, 1995, p.108).

Even more alarming than past dumping is the current imbalance between the steady generation of new waste and Russia’s capacity to deal with it. First, the 100-odd nuclear-powered vessels currently operated by the Northern Fleet regularly generate large amounts of both solid and liquid waste, yet adequate storage or treatment facilities are lacking. As for spent nuclear fuel, the highly deficient temporary storage facilities for removed fuel assemblies are already full to capacity. Secondly, the compilation of waste will accelerate further in the years to come, as submarines are taken out of operation due to old age or to comply with commitments under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty regime. Sixty Northern Fleet vessels were laid up in the period from 1989 to 1993, and it is expected that another thirty will be scrapped within the next few years. Only a fraction of the vessels taken out so far have been properly decommissioned by removal of reactor fuels and the reactor section. According to Western sources, in 1994 the dismantlement capacity of the Northern Fleet was one submarine a year – partly due to lack of storage facilities for the reactor cores and an inadequate system of transporting the waste out of the region (Yegorov, 1995, p.18) but also because of a tendency to allocate scarce docking facilities to the reloading of operative vessels rather than the unloading of laid-up ones.

Hence, the backbone of radioactive waste management, a key problem addressed by the London Convention, is adequate storage. This involves interim storage on the site where waste is generated, as well as a satisfactory system for transporting high-level waste and spent fuel for final deposition or, in the case of spent fuel, reprocessing. In practice, it also involves treatment capacity for concentrating or solidifying liquid waste and for compacting solid waste to facilitate storage. Ever since the 1960s the Northern Fleet in particular, but the Murmansk Shipping Company as well, have experienced a widening gap between actual and needed capacity along those dimensions; and this is the basic reason why both have resorted to the dumping of some of the waste generated in the nuclear complex in Russia’s northwest.

International Regulation of Dumping Problems

The basic principle of the regime based on the 1972 London Convention is that the disposal at sea of hazardous waste–defined in terms of toxicity, persistence and tendency to bioaccumulate in marine organisms–must be forbidden, save in cases where all other options are deemed more harmful. Putting this into practice involves at least three types of activities: (1) generating the knowledge necessary to enable informed choices; (2) adopting regulative measures which give life to the principles and take heed of existing knowledge; and (3) sustaining a collective system to further compliance, including reporting and verification of whether international commitments are matched by behavioural adaptation. While radioactive waste is only one of the substances dealt with by this Convention, it has been the single most politicised issue.

The main decision-making body is the Consultative Meeting of the Parties, usually held every year. A “black” and “grey” list system is applied, in which “black” items may not be dumped at all, whereas “grey” ones require special permits from a designated national authority to be reported to the secretariat of the Convention, located with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Members are obliged to monitor and keep a record of the nature and quantities of matter permitted to be dumped as well as when, where and how such dumping occurred and the condition of the seas where it took place. When the 1996 Protocol entered into force, a reverse listing was introduced: all dumping were prohibited unless explicitly permitted; the impact of this was further enhanced by a strong statement of the precautionary principle. Unlike many other international arrangements, the London Convention permits regulative decisions to be taken without unanimity: amendments to the lists may be passed by a two-thirds majority, balanced however by an opt-out clause allowing states to avoid being legally bound by provisions they do not wish to adhere to. A tacit consent procedure, whereby amendments become binding on the parties after 100 days unless they file a reservation, adds speed to the implementation process. In addition, the meeting may adopt non-binding resolutions by simple majority. As to enforcement, the London Convention sets out a broad range of provisions for the prevention, discovery and punishment of violations, obliging members to enforce rules in their capacities as, respectively, flag states, port states and coastal states; the latter can apply the Convention not only to their territorial waters but to their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves as well. A dispute settlement arrangement (adopted in 1978, but yet to enter into force) provides for arbitration or submission to the International Court of Justice.

While the London Convention forms the core of the international dumping regime, other global and regional processes complement it. The obligation to control dumping is confirmed by the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which in Article 210 refers implicitly to the London Convention and its annexes when requiring that national regulation shall be no less effective than the rules and standards set globally (Birnie and Boyle, 1992, p.320). As to radioactive waste, the Helsinki Convention targeting the Baltic Sea banned dumping of radioactive waste in 1974; and, in 1992, the OSPAR Convention elicited commitments to this effect from two of the most outspoken recalcitrants in the London process, the United Kingdom and France.

Since the late 1980s, various cooperative political vehicles have been set in motion in the Arctic realm. Those processes, including their interaction with activities under the London Convention, are also important to the current management of marine disposal of nuclear waste. At the bilateral level, several RussoNorwegian research cruises into the Barents and Kara Seas were launched in the 1990s, endorsed rather than initiated by London Consultative Meetings, for the purpose of gauging nuclear contamination in water masses and subsoil sediments n the areas close to dumping sites. For its part, the trilateral Declaration on Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC), involving the defence ministries of Russia, Norway and the United States, has framed several projects aimed at enhancing nuclear safety practices in northwest Russia. And the fairly ambitious Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) under the 1991 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which has singled out radionuclides as a priority area, submitted its major reports on the state of the Arctic environment in 1997 and 1998. Thus, on both the regulative and the programmatic side, the London Convention interlocks with a range of other cooperative processes, largely on a regional and sometimes bilateral level.

Since the adoption of the London Convention, a system of scientific advice has been elaborated, with three strands. The broadest advisory mechanism is the Scientific Group on Dumping, comprising experts nominated by the parties, which achieved permanent status in 1984. Secondly, a range of ad hoc groups of experts has been set up to compile information and further recommendations on particularly vital or controversial matters, such as the Panels on Sea Disposal of Radioactive Waste formed in 1983 and 1985. Similarly, in 1987 the InterGovernmental Panel of Experts on Radioactive Waste Disposal at Sea (IGPRAD) began addressing the wider political, legal, economic and social aspects of radioactive waste dumping, the comparative costs and risks of dumping as compared to land-based disposal, and whether it can be proven that radioactive dumping is not harmful to human life or the marine environment. IGPRAD’s final report in 1993 paved the way for the subsequent global prohibition of all dumping of radioactive waste at sea.

A third strand of the information-related activities generated by the London Convention is the work conducted by external organisations at the request of the Consultative Meetings. The significance of being able to trigger or forward investigations conducted by others becomes clear when we note that in 1990, the budget of the London Convention was a mere US$0.76 million, and the IMO staff allocated to it consisted of five persons (Sand, 1992, p.16). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with a budget of roughly US$225 million and a staff of some 2,000 (Yearbook, 1999, p.221) has been vital to the work of IGPRAD by conducting several specialised technical and scientific studies.

In terms of regulative provisions pertaining to radioactive waste, highlevel radioactive waste was placed on the original black list in 1972 – and state parties are thus obliged to abstain from any dumping of such material. While that prohibition had been highly controversial, at first strongly opposed by the United Kingdom and the United States, subsequent regulative discussion on nuclear matters revolved around extending it to low- and medium-level waste as well. The parties to the London Convention had designated the IAEA as the competent international advisory authority on whether given nuclear materials are unsuitable for dumping. Accordingly, the IAEA set up geographic criteria for the localisation of such dumping, including requirements that it should occur only in the belt between 50° North and 50° South latitude, beyond the continental shelf and at depths greater than 4,000 metres. The Barents and Kara Seas are located roughly between 70° and 80° North; moreover, most of the area is on a continental shelf with depths rarely exceeding a few hundred metres.

In 1983 a proposed ban failed to gain sufficient support, but Spain, strongly backed by South Pacific and Nordic countries, successfully sponsored a resolution on a voluntary moratorium on all dumping of radioactive materials until an expert meeting had presented their final report to the contracting parties. The Soviet Union abstained from voting, as it also did when the moratorium was prolonged in 1985; the reasons cited were that the moratorium lacked adequate scientific basis and violated the spirit of consensus underlying the Convention. Four years later, the Soviet delegation officially declared that it had not dumped such materials in the past, and would not do so in the future (Yablokov et al., 1993, section 1.1). But when in 1993 a binding prohibition on the dumping of low- and medium-level waste was established unanimously, Russia was among the five states abstaining from the vote. Having tried in vain to obtain a two-year delay, Russia filed, as the only contracting party, a formal reservation to the amendment, so that it is currently not formally bound by this prohibition.

The compliance system of the London Convention is the weak part of its implementation profile (Nauke and Holland, 1992, p.79). This system is based largely on self-reporting; in addition to a widespread inclination to ignore existing obligations to file reports, there is scant opportunity for the Secretariat or other members to subject reports to critical assessment. Nor can the regime, at least directly, provide significant positive incentives to induce compliance with its requirements. It should be noted here that relatively undeveloped compliance systems are quite common for environmental and resource management regimes. To some extent and in some situations, the formal reporting system of the Convention is complemented by information made available to the meetings by non-governmental organisations with access to the deliberations. Thus, it was a document presented by Greenpeace International that triggered the animated discussion at the 1991 Consultative Meeting on Soviet dumping in Arctic seas, which in turn produced a Soviet pledge to submit more information on the matter to the Secretariat.

The Need for Developing Specific Dumping Regime for Russia

The major source of the radioactive waste dumped into Arctic seas is the Soviet, later Russian, Northern Fleet, based on the Kola Peninsula. It has thus been the key target for regulations in this field. A second regional target is the Murmansk Shipping Company, which operates seven nuclear icebreakers engaged in keeping the Northern Sea Route open, especially the western part between Murmansk and Dudinka on the banks of the Yenisey. In addition, the nuclear icebreaker Lenin has been taken out of operation. The civilian nuclear power plant in Polyarnye Zori in Murmansk region has not engaged in dumping of waste in Arctic seas, so it is not among the relevant target groups in our context.

As to domestic regulative agencies, two sets of distinctions are particularly relevant. One is the classic differentiation between legislative, executive and judicial powers. In matters directly related to foreign affairs and international commitments, the normal situation in most countries is that the executive will be in charge unless the matter becomes politicised enough to engage one or both of the others. In the Soviet case, the judiciary has failed to play an independent role.

And, for most of its lifetime, the Soviet political system was marked by a strong executive: while the formal apex of power was placed in the legislative Supreme Soviet, real power resided in the Communist Party and was wielded primarily through the huge bureaucratic apparatus coordinated by the Council of Ministers. When a decree was issued in 1990 on measures to improve implementation of previous legislation to protect the northern environment, the relevant Supreme Soviet committee was not even consulted. The introduction of presidential rule the same year implied some executive de-linking from the Communist Party; the 1993 Constitution endowed the President of the Russian Federation with extensive powers, including the right to overrule legislative initiatives and to issue legally binding decrees. However, in the period from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the 1993 assault on the Parliament by troops loyal to President Yeltsin, the legislature was very active on nuclear matters in the north, especially regarding nuclear testing at the Novaya Zemlya site.

A second distinction regarding regulative agencies may be termed territorial. In the Soviet and later Russian context, it is generally helpful to scrutinise both federal and regional levels of government. However, in the case of nuclear waste management, we do not lose much by blackboxing the latter because, while there have been a few recent attempts on the part of regional governments to regulate the nuclear safety practices of the military, they have been futile. In 1991, for instance, the governor of Murmansk set up operational rules for the removal of spent fuel from nuclear reactors in the naval bases; those rules were stillborn, however, because physical access to the bases is up to the military to decide. The Northern Fleet flatly turned down a 1993 request from the environmental committee in the Murmansk oblast administration for information on nuclear waste management on the bases, although a visit was granted to one base two years later. And when Yeltsin decreed in 1992 that the lands on which the Novaya Zemlya nuclear test site is located should be federalised, county authorities in Arkhangelsk were neither consulted nor informed prior to the decision.

During 1970s and 1980s the IAEA geographic criteria for site selection regarding radioactive waste promulgated under the London Convention, according to which the Barents and Kara Seas were particularly poorly suited for the purpose, acquired considerable significance. In accordance with the new access rules, Goskomgidromet, Soviet civilian agency assigned responsibility for monitoring water areas, had participated in the elaboration of new standards on dumping of radioactive waste in 1983. However, its endorsement of these regulations, which permitted continued dumping of low- and medium-level waste, had been given on the understanding that the Northern Fleet would realise plans to build installations for treatment – concentration and solidification – of that waste, in order to phase out its dumping operations (Yablokov et al., 1993, section 2.1). In the meantime, the Murmansk Shipping Company, which had far smaller volumes of waste to handle in the first place, had built such an installation at its Atomflot base outside Murmansk and was able to discontinue dumping of liquid waste in 1984 and solid waste two years later. When the Northern Fleet failed to build similar capacity, Goskomgidromet first expressed disagreement with the selection of dumping sites, citing the IAEA guidelines, and then in late 1987 withdrew its endorsement of the permit to dump radioactive waste in the sites used by the Northern Fleet.

While this regulative controversy between Goskomgidromet and the Navy was clearly related to norms produced under the London Convention, it is not fully explained by them. We must recall that in 1985, Gorbachev had ascended to power in the Soviet Union, rapidly embarking upon his project of slackening restrictions on access to bureaucratic decision-making. The Chernobyl accident the following year had channelled much of the public disapproval into the environmental area, in particular of activities involving nuclear risks. Thus, while Goskomgidromet had voiced concern with the 1983 regulations because they deviated from the IAEA criteria, the boldness of its move four years later must be seen in the context of a rapidly changing society far more concerned with radioactive contamination and managed by a modernising leadership that encouraged criticism of bureaucratic malpractice.

The key target of regulation – the Northern Fleet – was at first less than impressed with this stricter policy line assumed by Goskomgidromet. In 1988, the year after Goskomgidromet had withdrawn its permission, the Northern Fleet dumped more low- and medium-level waste than it had in twelve years; and, even more grave in terms of potential release into the environment, two reactors were dumped the same year in a bay off Novaya Zemlya.

So again, effective measures were not taken before the dumping scandal became an international one. In terms of political influence, the establishment of the Yablokov Commission and the publication of its report in 1993 marked the highest point for the proponents of stricter controls regarding handling of radioactive waste. Even though leading representatives from the nuclear military complex took part in its preparation, the Yablokov Report was highly critical of both the dumping and the secrecy surrounding it. Indeed, the Report itself reveals a strong belief among its authors in the domestic political clout of the global dumping regime – because, in the Report, Soviet commitments under the London Convention are systematically exaggerated. No mention is made of the distinction between resolutions and amendments in the London Convention, nor of the optout clause pertaining to the latter. Thus, the Report does not bring out that the Soviet abstention from the votes on the voluntary moratorium in 1983 makes it very hard to argue that this country was legally or even politically bound by them in this period. Likewise, while the Commission boldly stated that the permission to conduct dumping of low- and medium-level waste in the Barents and Kara Seas was illegal, in reality the IAEA guidelines had no more than quasi-legal status (Birnie and Boyle, 1992, p. 324).

Current Situation in the Barents and Kara Seas: Need for Compliance

Even during the period of military self-regulation, some efforts had been made on the part of Soviet authorities to stimulate alternatives to the dumping of radioactive waste. For the Arctic waste problem, as noted, the elaboration of alternatives to marine disposal means the construction of adequate interim storage facilities combined with either on-site treatment facilities and a permanent repository, or a smooth system for transporting parts of the waste out of the region for reprocessing. At an early stage, the Soviet authorities chose the latter option, primarily in order to generate plutonium for weapon use. The first interim storage for spent fuel was ready for operation by the Northern Fleet in 1962; it experienced considerable problems right from the outset.  Major leakages from the pools occurred from 1982 to 1983 and resulted in a gradual close-down of this storage, fuel assemblies being transferred to nearby storage tanks meant for low-level liquid waste. Three other main interim storage facilities for fuel assemblies were built as well. In 1973, the Northern Fleet and the Murmansk Shipping Company began transporting spent nuclear fuel by barges to Murmansk and from there to Mayak by rail. There is a particular problem with reprocessing: the separation process also generates considerable volumes of high-level liquid waste that cannot be put back into the fuel cycle and that is more hazardous to store than spent nuclear fuel. In the case of the Mayak complex, this has created one of the gravest environmental disaster areas in the entire Soviet Union; thus the early investments in an infrastructure to permit reprocessing of spent fuel can hardly be seen as indication of a Soviet concern to avoid nuclear contamination.

Just as in the case of assessment and regulation, the internationalisation of the dumping issue since the late 1980s was a turning point for efforts to enhance domestic capacities to avoid dumping of radioactive waste. After having ascribed a 1993 incident of dumping of liquid radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan to irresponsibility on the part of the Navy and the nuclear industry, the Russian Minister of Environment informed the Consultative Meeting of the London Convention that Western technology and financial resources would speed up the process of acquiring the ability to manage without such dumping in the future. In response, an international Technical Advisory Assistance Team was set up to develop projects on treatment and storage facilities. The subsequent year, this team could report to the Consultative Meeting that Japan and Russia had signed an agreement to build a treatment facility in the Far East for low-level liquid waste; and also that there was progress regarding a project to enhance liquid processing capacity at Atomflot, the base of the Murmansk Shipping Company. Furthermore, Norway and Russia had reached agreement on a two-year assessment programme on the nuclear waste challenges in the Mayak plant. In 1995, experts from six NATO countries were invited to an international scientific symposium in Moscow on the decommissioning of nuclear submarines, involving leading figures in the State Committee for Defence Branches of Industry, the Ministry of Atomic Power and the Northern Fleet. And in the same year, thirty-two representatives of a dozen ministries and other agencies in Russia responsible for radioactive waste participated in an IAEA meeting on international cooperation on nuclear waste management.

Conclusion

When the handling of radioactive waste became politicised in the early 1990s, the international dumping regime was helpful to the successful efforts of critics of dumping, both among regulative agencies and intervenor groups, to enhance transparency on nuclear activities. Access to information on nuclear safety in the military sector, as well as participation in the associated policymaking processes, reached a high point with the publication of the 1993 governmental Yablokov Report, which also responded to demands articulated by the Consultative Meeting of the London Convention. The various prescriptions set forth in this Convention, moreover, appear to have enhanced the political clout of those critical of dumping, as these prescriptions figure prominently in the unequivocal argument made in the Yablokov Report on the severity of past dumping and the need to invest more in storage and decontamination facilities to avoid future dumping.

Since then, access to military information, including nuclear waste practices, has been tightened at a time when public attention to environmental problems is ebbing. Moreover, the limits of the funds, personnel and experience of the environmental bureaucracy are becoming apparent as the nuclear-industrial complex has begun regaining much of its previous political strength and prestige. Importantly, the civilian regulative apparatus does not have physical access to military bases or shipyards. This contraction in terms of domestic access and participation is the upshot of internal Russian developments, but it is to some extent balanced by steadily wider international participation in programmes designed to monitor radioactivity in Arctic seas and, subsequently, to alleviate the operational needs of the Northern Fleet to continue dumping. These international programmes have required the consent, and increasingly the active participation, of the Navy itself. This support has been secured primarily by the belief that such programmes will be conducive to the transfer of technology and financial resources to Russia from the West.

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References

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