The Times April 19 1996


Time to tackle nuclear pollution with the urgency it merits

[First Hit]
This evening President Clinton, John Major and the other Group of Seven leaders will sit down with President Yeltsin at a Kremlin banquet. It is the start of an extraordinary summit to deal with the consequence of the world's worst technological catastrophe, ten years ago in Chernobyl. They are there because the wily Russian leader, anticipating a valuable boost to his re-election campaign, last year extended an invitation that they could not refuse. But even if the the pictures assist Mr Yeltsin's return to the Kremlin in June, the discussions will offer him no free ride. Nor should they.

At issue is not only Western help with nuclear decommissioning but the appalling safety record, technological blundering and obsessive secrecy that have hindered all efforts to make Russia's nuclear submarines and power stations safe. In Russia, the world now faces nuclear perils potentially thousands of times more deadly than the radioactive aftermath of the Chernobyl melt-down in Ukraine a decade ago.

It is now more than three years since the West promised substantial help to close the remaining three reactors at Chernobyl and make safe other antiquated graphite-moderated reactors. So far Russia has seen little of the $1 billion promised, and Ukraine is still waiting for most of the $3 billion pledged to renew the crumbling Chernobyl sarcophagus and develop new sources of energy. Experts, Russian and Western, identified the most unstable plants long ago. Too much European Union aid has been gone to expensive Western consultants, rather than actual salvage work by Russian and Ukrainian nuclear technicians and scientists.

The most valuable aid to overall nuclear safety has come from America, which has focused not on power generation but on disposing of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Since 1992, the US has committed over $1.5 billion to transport, store and dismantle nuclear weapons, while buying up highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan and committing itself to the further purchase of 500 tonnes from Russia over the next 20 years.

In return for more effectively targeted assistance, the West is entitled to demand a minimum of co-operation and responsibility from Moscow. That has not been forthcoming. The negligence and indifference of Russian officials is breathtaking. Villagers have found waste radioactive material dumped in woods and fields. Highly enriched uranium is stored in warehouses bolted only with padlocks. Records of nuclear holdings have gone missing, and officials have been caught smuggling nuclear material to unsavoury regimes willing to pay the price. The most disturbing statistics of all are in the Kola peninsula, home to Russia's most unstable reactor, where waste from ageing nuclear icebreakers and 70 decommissioned submarines is being stored in leaking containers, disused boats or simply dumped at sea. The total fissile material around Murmansk is estimated to be more than a thousand times the yield of the largest French nuclear test at Mururoa.

Mr Yeltsin knows he needs help; Western leaders know they must spend up to £20 billion to reduce the threat to manageable levels. Yet the Russian leader has done too little to persuade a secretive military to come clean with the facts ­ let alone to drop the outrageous spying charges against Aleksandr Nikitin, an environmental investigator who uncovered serious official misconduct. The West, in turn, could do far more to persuade taxpayers of the urgency of the threat. Faced with a dozen more Chernobyls and other nuclear pollution, the world cannot afford half-measures and delay.