St. Petersburg meeting on the future of the Nuclear Weapons Complexes of Russia and the USA

From 28 May – 1 June, 2000 Pugwash Meeting No. 254 was held in St. Petersburg – Petrozavodsk, Russia.

6th Workshop in Pugwash Series: The Future of the Nuclear Weapons Complexes of Russia and the USA

The Status and Prospects of Naval Nuclear Weapons and the Development of the Science-Industry Complex of the Russian Northwest

Report by Jeffrey Boutwell

THIS was the sixth in a series of Pugwash Workshops on the challenges faced by Russia and the United States as the world?s two biggest nuclear weapons states seek to manage the large industrial infrastructures underlying their nuclear forces in a time of global transition. More than 40 participants from eight countries attended various workshop meetings, including 30 scientists and policy specialists from numerous Russian research institutes (including the Rubin submarine design bureau) and environmental organizations. The meeting was organized and hosted by the Russian Pugwash Group.

[Editor’s Note: The tremendous task facing Russia as it reduces its submarine and surface fleets and deals with the fissile material from decommissioned reactors and weapons was starkly illustrated two months after the workshop by the tragic loss of the submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea, as analyzed by workshop participant Gwyn Prins in the accompanying article “Catastrophe on the cards” which appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 18 August 2000.]


The Current Nuclear Context

THE workshop began with discussion of how revolutionary developments in global politics have not led to similar changes in how we think about nuclear weapons. Three recent events in particular help frame the discussion. First, the five traditional nuclear powers have accepted, in the UN Conference on Disarmament, their obligations to move toward elimination of nuclear weapons, in effect delegitimizing the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs. At the same time, however, and this is the second point, we seem to have come to the end of formal arms control agreements with little thought on how best to proceed in a new era. Third and finally, there is the prospect of nuclear next use, of the chance that small nuclear exchanges will take place as more countries acquire, and seek to acquire, nuclear weapons.

It was noted that negative developments prior to the 6th NPT review conference held out little hope of reaching agreement on a consensus document. Discussion focused on nuclear haves vs. have-nots, with the New Agenda Coalition (seven nations: Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, New Zealand, Egypt, South Africa, Ireland) injecting a strong demand for moving toward elimination of nuclear weapons. The N-5 did finally produce a joint statement, focusing on additional progress in START while noting the need to ?strengthen? the ABM Treaty (though the US gave a somewhat novel interpretation to what is meant by ?strengthening? the ABM regime). The statement also contained an ?unequivocal undertaking? on the part of nuclear weapons states to eliminating nuclear weapons. Emphasis was also given to the importance of unilateral measures.

Yet progress in the reduction of nuclear weapons remains difficult. START II was signed in January 1993, yet not ratified by the Russian Duma until April 2000. Moreover, the Russian instrument of ratification contains conditions (e.g., article 9, where the exchange of instruments is conditional on US Senate agreement to both the US-Russian MOU on theater missile defense demarcation, and on Russian successor law). There is also article 2, paragraph 2, which identifies conditions that would allow (indeed, perhaps even require) Russian withdrawal from START II if the US withdraws or infringes on the ABM Treaty and the TMD demarcation agreement. A further complicating factor is the Duma taking a more activist role in overseeing implementation of the treaty. Thus, early entry into force of START II seems unlikely.

Factors influencing START III include a Russian preference for 1,000 – 1,500 systems compared to a US range of 2,000 (Clinton) to 2,500 (Joint Chiefs of Staff). A statement from Republican presidential nominee George Bush has indicated a willingness to go lower than 2,000 systems, but only if supported by the JCS and only if tied to deployment of national missile defenses. As is well known, the US has already allocated funds under the 1999 NMD Act, and there is interest as well in sea-based missile defenses (e.g., proposals for 600 interceptors on more than 20 surface ships for boost-phase intercept).

It was noted that possible US-Russian compromises on missile defenses have been floated, where mutual agreement on changes to the ABM Treaty could be linked to lower levels of strategic forces in START III, getting rid of the MIRV ban (allowing 3-6 warheads on the Topol-M), and creating firewalls to prevent the deployment of full-blown national missile defenses. Yet such compromises will be difficult for a number of reasons, not least the asymmetry in US and Russian strategic forces (including the increased vulnerability of Russian ballistic missile submarines).


Naval Nuclear Issues

REGARDING naval nuclear weapons in particular, significant changes in force deployments are taking place. In Russia, some 287 nuclear-powered submarines (both attack and ballistic missile), containing more than 500 reactors, were built between 1954 and 1996. Today, at least 183 of these are out of service (and the number may be well above 200). Estimates are that 120 de-commissioned submarines still have fueled reactors in need of disposal.

Even before the sinking of the Kursk, the past decades have seen a string of serious naval nuclear accidents, the most notable being the loss at sea of two US and three (now four) Russian nuclear submarines.

In 1989, the Komsomolets, powered by a nuclear reactor and carrying two nuclear torpedoes, sank in 1600 meters of water in a heavily-fished area of the Norwegian Sea. Soviet authorities knew that the reactor had shut down, but little else. As with the Kursk, raising the Komsomolets was not possible because of hull damage. While there was initial concern of leaking plutonium because of hull corrosion, monitoring over the years has detected no radiation. On the other hand, lack of funds has prevented recent monitoring, and suggestions have been made for on-station buoys that could warn of a change in the situation.

A different issue is that of disposal of nuclear waste and decommissioned nuclear reactors at sea. Although there are estimated to be 17,000 such containers in the Barents Sea, and 43,000 in the Pacific, a European Union program, Spent Fuel Management in Northwest Russia, concluded that it was not necessary to raise nuclear material containers from the ocean bottom. There is no evidence of plankton at depths of 1700 meters, thus little risk to the human food chain; plus plutonium spreads far more dangerously through the air than through either food or water.

In 1993, then President Boris Yeltsin order an audit of the fissile material problem facing Russian authorities. The result was the Yablokov White Book, which detailed a string of storage and handling problems throughout the facilities of the Russian Northern Fleet, at Murmansk and elsewhere.

The workshop reviewed the problems of nuclear pollution circulating throughout Scandanavia and northwest Russia. In addition to radioactive sources in the Barents, radiation has been carried over central Siberia from the Soviet test site in Novaya Zemlya, while radiation in the Irish Sea (from Sellafield) is carried up over northern Norway into the Barents Sea. Even radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident was carried into the Baltic where it ultimately made its way out to the North Sea and up around into the Barents.

Tests of caesium-137 in the Kara Sea point to 40 percent derived from nuclear weapons fallout and 55 percent from Sellafield; comparable figures for strontium-90 are 55 percent from nuclear weapons fallout and 30 percent from Sellafield. There are high levels of caesium-137 in fish in the Baltic and Irish Seas, while levels are low in the Barents and North Atlantic (up to 20 Bq/kg in former, less than 2 Bq/kg in latter). Regarding plutonium, nuclear waste from Sellafeld (300 kg) into the Atlantic is greater than that from the Komsomolets (8.2 kg) or even from previous nuclear weapons tests (30 kg. in the Barents and Kara Seas). Regarding potential danger to humans, caesium is the most worrisome (in the food chain).


Nuclear Waste Repository

GIVEN that current storage areas for solid and liquid fuels don?t meet either Russian or international standards, planning is underway for long-term solutions. In the interim, fuel stored in submarines is safer, especially with operating cooling systems, until intermediate storage can be arranged.

The workshop discussed nuclear waste storage on the Kola peninsula, where feasibility studies have been done for granite repositories at depths of 150 to 200 meters, estimated to cost 200 million Euro. Locations on Novaya Zemlya are not feasible, both because of sandstone/ limestone strata and because global warming increases of eight degrees celsius could cause the repository to slide into the sea.

Will high level waste and resultant high temperatures lead to heat load and fracturing of granite? Participants thought not, as the use of barriers will contain temperatures to a maximum of 60 degrees celsius, alleviating the problem. Plus, the seismic situation is quite stable; boring holes 12.5 km deep reveal strata some 3.5 billion years old. Despite these positive indicators, Norway has expressed concern over the repository being close to the border and about the efficiency of the organizational effort and reliability of cost estimates. Several participants mentioned problems inherent in the Russian bureaucracy, where overlapping jurisdiction of the Russian Navy, Minatom, the defense ministry, and local governments collide.


Ocean Disposal of World War II Chemical Weapons

IN 1946-47 following the end of World War II, an estimated 300,000 tons of German chemical weapons (mustard, phosgene, prussic acid, sarin) were confiscated and sunk in the Baltic and North seas. The Soviet Union disposed of such weapons, loaded on ships, in the Baltic, while the US and Britain sank German chemical munitions in the Kattegat and Skagerrak straits between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. CW containers were dumped individually by fishing boats commissioned for the task, or loaded on ships and sunk.

Over the years, six mapping expeditions have identified their location, identified sediments and residues, and gauged their impact on the sea. Given the carcinogenic threat posed by chemical toxins, such sites are monitored even today by international teams, such as the Baltic Environmental Patrol. Sweden in particular has been conducting research since 1992 on vessels sunk with chemical weapons.

Strong undercurrents and erosion of the seabed at times unearth weapons that had been buried for years. Given the still existing ecological threat, monitoring concentrates on hydrophysical characteristics (the interchange of waters between the North Sea and Baltic Sea) and on hydrobiological and microbiological analyses. There is the problem as well of fishing boats accidentally catching drums of chemicals in their nets; Polish fishermen have had fish confiscated due to contamination.

While estimates differ on the dangers to Baltic fish stocks from these CW, a continuing concern is that of public perceptions, where a ?Mad Cow? type scenario could develop, even if concentrations are low. Complicating the situation is the difficulty of government coordination, where different bureaucratic interests often conflict. For example, the military will often downplay the significance of environmental threats (to minimize public interest), while local authorities sometimes over-dramatize the dangers (for purposes of political leverage and funding).

Of the chemical compounds involved, lucite (containing arsenic) and ipritus (difficult to dissolve) are considered the most dangerous compounds; others are hydrolized and become non-toxic. Micro-organisms tolerant of ipritus can swell to 90 percent of the total population of micro-organisms in particular locales. Self-purification also occurs, with micro-organisms breaking down some compounds. The biggest concern appears to be that of the concentrated release of chemicals from loaded vessels in the Skagerrak. There is also a heavy overload of phosphorus and nitrogen in the Baltic (much from the Neva River) which is a grave concern.

Workshop discussion of CW ocean pollution noted that such problems need to be framed in an appropriate time-scale; actual toxicity is one issue (e.g., chemicals hydrolize in water, reducing toxicity), while persistence of the problem is another. Risk assessment needs to take these and other considerations into account. There is also the question of comparative risk. Reactors with fission products and actinides pose greater risk than nuclear-armed torpedoes. An even greater risk is that of shipping spent fuel, which is susceptible to both accidents and terrorist action.


The Role of NGOs

IINTERNATIONAL NGOs, such as the Bellona Foundation of Norway, are playing an ever increasing role in highlighting major military environmental threats. In the UK, NGOs were especially important in highlighting the problems surrounding the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant.

Risk assessment depends on both scientific data and informed public debate being able to decide on priorities for action, which Pugwash is trying to do with different threats posed by varying types of radioactive and chemical materials, and which other international NGOs do regarding a wide variety of nuclear, biological, and chemical activities, information on which governments seek to keep limited.

For example, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has a program “Nukes are Not Enough” that includes joint programs with Sweden and Germany and Physicians for Social Responsibility in the US, as well as cooperation with the media to bring information about nuclear activities to the public. The publication in 1992 of Atom Ohne geheimniB (in German and Russian) showing, among other things, the location of nuclear sites on the Kola Peninsula, helped prompt Yeltsin to set up the Yablokov committee.

In light of the continuing case of former Russian Navy captain Alexander Nikitin, now with the Bellona Foundation, discussion turned to the extent to which information on nuclear issues is currently available in Russia. While the St. Petersburg city court ultimately dismissed the Nikitin case (after five years), and the Russian supreme court has so far upheld that ruling, changes in Russian law have now made explicitly illegal the type of environmental research and writing engaged in by Nikitin. Moreover, the St. Petersburg prosecutor is seeking to re-open the case against Nikitin. Similar cases are now pending, and the situation today is less open than during the Gorbachev years.

In the Soviet era, public organizations were of course tightly controlled by the government. Today, there are 5,000 NGOs registered in Russia, with 500 of them very active. Yet several participants asked, where is the nuclear policy debate in Russia? There isn?t much of one. Have Russian NGOs been effective in forging links with members of the Duma, as this is one of the strongest ways to educate and influence policymakers?

As in other countries, there is also the issue of how the scientific community deals with public opinion that has lost faith in scientific data or the ability of scientists to be objective. NGOs in this regard play both a positive and negative role, both helping to inform the public about complex scientific issues but at times overly politicizing issues. For example, NGOs are often tempted to rush to the media too quickly with news that could be easily sensationalized. Mention was made of France, where a good job has been done to educate the public on technology issues, such as civilian nuclear power. NGOs need to break out of their closed circle and talk to the wider scientific community.

As is true of Pugwash, Russian NGOs need to evaluate their particular strengths across a wide range of options, including: 1) providing information to the public; 2) ensuring and provoking serious debate on the issues; 3) influencing public opinion; 4) evaluating public policies; and 5) influencing policy.