WTC disaster intensifies nuclear waste clean-up efforts

The NDEP Support Fund begins efforts to finance wastewater treatment and nuclear waste management projects in Northwest Russia.

By: Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

Multinational pledges from the "G8 Global Partnership" and the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP) in early July marked significant progress in the early stages of a difficult process to clean up the Baltic Sea, drinking water resources, spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in Northwest Russia.

Contamination in this region could spread across Russian borders into the Barents and Baltic Sea coastal regions, into Northern Europe and far beyond. Radioactivity levels at Andreeva Bay, only 45 kilometres from the Norwegian border, are similar to those following the world's worst nuclear accident in Chernobyl during the 1980s. The Kola Peninsula is the world's largest repository of radioactive waste in the world; more than 100 decommissioned nuclear submarines remain afloat off the coast. Inadequate funding and manpower necessary to properly store obsolete subs are causing the ageing fleet to corrode and leak radioactivity into coastal waters to create a "slow-motion, maritime Chernobyl."

European Union and US governments have known these facts for quite a few years; however the September 11 attack on the US World Trade Center created a new urgency to the problem. Sinking subs that could release reactors and nuclear fuel into the sea not only threaten Northern Europe's coastal waters. The possibility of terrorists using some of this nuclear waste in a "dirty bomb" or other destructive act prompted government leaders to work together and help Russia secure its enormous stores of nuclear waste and weapons of mass destruction.

On June 28, the Group of 8 nations - France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Japan, Canada, USA and the Russian Federation - launched the Global Partnership and pledged US$ 20 billion to stop the spread of weapons and mass destruction.

The NDEP shares similar goals - decommissioning nuclear submarines - with the G8 partnership, but its overarching goal is to tackle a wider range of environmental problems spilling over from Northwest Russia into areas around the Baltic and Barents seas. On July 9, representatives from EU Member States, potential donor nations and international financial institutions raised g110 million to launch the NDEP Support Fund. Monies from this fund will be used to leverage loans from international financial organisations to fund water and wastewater treatment, radioactive waste disposal and other environmental projects in Northwest Russia, but many other countries in Europe will benefit - Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

A global "hot spot" of pollution, the Baltic Sea receives huge amounts of untreated municipal and industrial wastewaters from 14 nations in its drainage basin. Pollution sources, i.e. fertilisers and pesticides in agricultural runoff, oil spills from increased shipping and heavy metals in wastewater runoff, affect all nations sharing its coastal waters. These pollutants tend to concentrate in the virtually closed sea, since its only outlet is located near Denmark. Any nuclear contamination in any of the countries within the Baltic catchment area would affect the entire region and beyond, depending on the nature of the release.

Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg discharge a major portion of the pollutant load in the Baltic Sea. The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) is funding the expansion and upgrade of a wastewater treatment plant in Kaliningrad that will reduce organic materials by 90%, and substantially reduce discharges of phosphorus, nitrogen and metals when it is completed in 2005. In addition, St. Petersburg will decrease its raw discharges into the Baltic Sea in 2005 once its new wastewater treatment plant begins operations.

According to EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, "The scale of the task is immense. The 12 projects so far identified in the environmental field are just a start, even though the total cost is estimated at g1.3 billion. But, the experience of the candidate countries around the Baltic Sea shows rapid progress IS possible by leveraging investments with grant funds." European leaders launched the Northern Dimension five years ago to address these issues. The G8 pledge should only help to intensify and quicken the pace of clean up efforts in Russia.

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

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