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Nuclear threats on land and sea

This article is over 23 years, 9 months old
THE FOCUS in the Russian submarine disaster has naturally been on the tragedy of the 118 sailors, many of them conscripts, killed as the vessel went down. But that will not be the only legacy of the disaster. The submarine's nuclear reactors and missiles pose a serious threat which could last for thousands of millions of years.
Issue 1711

THE FOCUS in the Russian submarine disaster has naturally been on the tragedy of the 118 sailors, many of them conscripts, killed as the vessel went down. But that will not be the only legacy of the disaster. The submarine’s nuclear reactors and missiles pose a serious threat which could last for thousands of millions of years.

The deadly nuclear material adds to the terrifying catalogue of such waste piling up across the world. The Kursk submarine has two nuclear reactors on board, with 1.2 tonnes of enriched uranium nuclear fuel.

It also carried cruise missiles, which could carry nuclear warheads. The nuclear material will leak into the sea. It will take 710 million years for the amount of radioactivity to fall by half.

The Kursk is not the only nuclear submarine on the ocean floor. Officially there are seven others-five are American and two are Russian. Six are in the Atlantic and one more beside the Kursk in the Barents Sea. Not all got there accidentally.

In 1954 the US deliberately sank an experimental nuclear reactor on board the Seawolf submarine-the largest single lump of radioactive material ever deliberately dumped in the ocean.

Many commentators believe that, given the level of secrecy surrounding the military, there could be much more nuclear waste in the sea. US and British nuclear submarines used to discharge radioactive water from their cooling systems into the sea.

Nuclear waste in the sea poses a terrible threat to the environment and people. Nuclear expert John Large explains why: ‘The radioactivity is released into the sea, smaller marine life eats radioactive particulates, and the fish eat those. The radioactivity can be concentrated above the background level in the sea by 20,000 times or more.’

The Barents Sea is a spawning ground for cod and herring. The fish are a key food source for around five million Russians and many Scandinavians.

Biggest stockpiles are in US and Britain

There are vast amounts of nuclear waste in the West as well as in Russia. Britain has at least 11 discarded nuclear submarines rusting in port. Seven are in Rosyth near Edinburgh-the Dreadnought, Churchill, Swiftsure, Resolution, Renown, Repulse and Revenge.

Devonport on England’s south coast has the rusting nuclear submarines Valiant, Warspite, Courageous and Conqueror. It is also home to one of the four serving Trident nuclear missile and nuclear powered submarines. It is awaiting repair after a leak in the cooling system of its nuclear reactor.

Another serving nuclear sub, the Tireless, is tied up in Gibraltar after its cooling system broke down. The Vengeance Trident submarine was on fire for four hours when in port in Barrow last year.

The Trident subs and their weapons cost £1.5 billion of public money every year, and will do so for at least another 30 years. Each can fire 16 nuclear missiles, which have three warheads. They are designed to obliterate 48 cities and millions of people around the world.

By far the biggest nuclear menace, from missiles and reactors, comes from the world’s biggest military power, the US. At any one time it has 15 nuclear armed and powered submarines cruising the world’s oceans.

Nuclear weapons are obscene. Nuclear power only exists because governments wanted to produce nuclear material for weapons. Nuclear generated electricity has always been expensive and dangerous to produce.

The nuclear madness risks environmental and human disaster now, and long into the future as more deadly waste accumulates. All nuclear weapons and reactors should be shut down now.

100s of reactors

THE SEA is not the only nuclear risk in northern Russia and Scandinavia. The nearby Kola peninsula is home to a huge number of operating and defunct, but still lethal, nuclear reactors. The former Soviet Union built 287 nuclear submarines, containing more than 500 reactors.

Some 245 of these are now out of service. At least half still have reactors with their radioactive fuel in them. Many are lying in bases on the Kola peninsula. Russia’s Northern Fleet, based in the area, has another 300 plus reactors on battle cruisers, and many more aboard icebreakers and other nuclear powered ships.

All are as potentially dangerous as those on the Kursk. The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine has killed hundreds of people and left thousands with cancer. The radiation spread across much of Europe in the atmosphere, even contaminating grass and the sheep that ate the grass in Wales.

Kola is also home to a nuclear power station. Even the pro-nuclear power International Atomic Energy Authority admits its ageing reactor has a one in four chance of a ‘critical’ failure in the next 20 years. Just as at Chernobyl there is no containment shield around the reactor.

The cities of Murmansk and Severodinsk in Kola have huge amounts of nuclear waste stored on barges. As the Guardian reported, four of the storage barges ‘are over 25 years old and full. With nowhere better to put the stuff, all these old, badly maintained barges are accidents waiting to happen.’

It’s already happened here

‘it could never happen here,’ say Western politicians after nuclear disasters elsewhere in the world. They said it after Chernobyl in 1986, again after the Tokaimura nuclear reactor exploded in Japan last year, and now again after the Russian submarine disaster.

Yet similar incidents have happened here, and more are certain in the future unless the nuclear madness is halted. Half the total of radioactive Caesium 137 in the Barents and surrounding seas comes not from Russia, but from the Sellafield plant on Britain’s west coast.

It has repeatedly leaked radioactive material into the Irish Sea, from where it flows up around Norway. In 1957 a huge fire at the plant, then called Windscale, spewed radioactive material across the surrounding area.

An accident in the 1970s with plutonium, the material used in nuclear bombs, started a chain reaction. Earlier this year Sellafield management was caught out lying over safety details of nuclear material it had shipped to Japan. The report found other safety breaches at Sellafield.

It has vast stores of highly radioactive waste sitting in ageing tanks. If the tanks erupted they could spread up to 100 times more radioactivity into the environment more than Chernobyl did. Sellafield’s owner, the state-run BNFL, also has a nuclear plant near Preston. It is identical to the Tokaimura plant which exploded last year.

It also has a series of old Magnox nuclear reactors around the country. They were designed to last for a maximum of 25 years. But the company wants to keep them running for up to double that, despite a series of safety scares which have seen many repeatedly shut down.

Catalogue of disaster

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has uncovered evidence of a catalogue of disasters at the factories which make nuclear weapons in Britain. The two plants are at Aldermaston and Burghfield.

In the last year there has been a series of incidents, including:

  • Eight breaches of ‘criticality’ safety procedures.

  • Eight incidents where nuclear material, including plutonium, was incorrectly labelled.

  • Nineteen serious health and safety incidents, including at one point all firefighting appliances on the sites being declared unfit for service.

  • Two cases of nuclear contamination off site, involving the enriched uranium material that is used in the reactors of nuclear submarines.
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