The U.S. decision to join efforts to clean up a peninsula where Soviet-era nuclear warships, weapons and waste threaten the fragile arctic has heartened activists who have warned of the danger for years.
The Kola Peninsula, which borders Norway and Finland, serves as the base for Russia’s Northern Fleet, much of which has deteriorated since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Radioactive waste is stored on ships so rusted they can’t be moved from their moorings near downtown Murmansk, the Arctic’s largest city with about a half million residents.
A nuclear power plant, providing about 60 percent of the Kola’s energy, is considered unsafe and, until 1990, the Soviet navy routinely dumped radioactive waste in the arctic waters.
The peninsula, about the size of Kentucky, is the base of 155 nuclear submarines, according to the Norwegian environmental group Bellona. The group fears a fire or a storage ship sinking could trigger a nuclear accident.
“We think the 88 derelict nuclear submarines along the Kola Peninsula are the biggest problem,” Thomas Nilsen, of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona said this week.
Bellona, which specializes in arctic radiation problems, is encouraged that other countries have begun to take an interest.
A pact promising $1 million apiece from the United States, Russia and Norway, was signed last month during a meeting of NATO defense ministers and Igor Rodionov, the Russian defense minister, in Bergen, Norway.
“It is definitely historic that the United States and Russia, as well as Norway, agreed to work together on solving military environmental problems in the arctic,” Nilsen said.
The spending promised in the new pact pales compared with the $35 million that Norway alone has pledged to Kola cleanup in the past two years.
“But it is a start,” Nilsen said. “Next, we have to get the European Union to open its money bags.”
Bellona has probed the Kola’s problems so deeply that one of its members, retired Russian military officer Alexander Nikitin, is jailed in Russia. The government contends Nikitin gave away state secrets in contributing to a Bellona report; Bellona said the information came from public records.
In that report, released in August, Bellona said 18 percent of the world’s atomic reactors are on the Kola and in nearby regions. Most, about 270 units, are used by the Northern Fleet, which can’t afford to maintain them.
Bellona has complained of being repeatedly harassed while trying to investigate Russia’s nuclear problems. On Thursday, the group said it was denied visas to St. Petersburg, where Nikitin is jailed.
Norway has installed radiation detectors on the Kola and on its own territory, monitors radiation in the ocean, and has been checking icebergs floating from Russian waters into Norway’s rich fishing grounds.
So far, the danger appears to exceeds any damage.