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Mothballed nuclear subs create environmental disaster

Russia’s attempt to raise the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk from the bottom of the Barents Sea generated concern worldwide about radiation leaks and environmental con-tamination. University of Arkansas chemical hazards expert Jerry Havens has found that concern about the Barents Sea and nearby Kola Peninsula are very real, if late in coming.

“What has already happened there is an environmental disaster,” said Havens, Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and director of the Chemical Hazards Research Center (CHRC). “Even though it is in the Arctic, which is a particularly fragile environment, it is a disaster that will affect the rest of the world.”

Havens studied the situation recently when he served as a technical reviewer for the Technical Guidance Group of the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) program, a trilateral NATO initiative comprising the United States, Russia and Norway.

Russia began decommissioning half of its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet about the same time its economy collapsed. Faced with more than 100 SSBNs and no money, the Russian Defense Ministry brought the submarines to port at their nuclear naval bases on the Kola Peninsula, near the Kamchatka Peninsula, and parked them.

“Many of these seriously deteriorating submarines are over 30 years old and some are in danger of sinking at the dock,” Havens explained. “These nuclear submarines pose a trans-national-boundary environmental threat primarily because of the highly radioactive spent fuel that remains in their nuclear reactors.”

“It is critical that the United States participate in the efforts to prevent further damage to the environment,” said Havens. “It’s not just Norway’s problem or Russia’s problem. We are all in the same world, and if we don’t work together to solve these truly international problems, eventually the pollutants released into the Barents Sea will wash up onto our own shores.”

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