APS News

Nikitin Slams Russian Nuclear Waste

Environmental activist Aleksandr Nikitin
Environmental activist Aleksandr Nikitin. Alan Chodos/APS
The radioactive fuel contained in the submarine Kursk that sank in the Barents Sea on August 12 is a tiny problem compared to the severe environmental threat to the Russian north posed by the 60 tons of spent nuclear fuel that has been excreted by Russian naval vessels.

This point was made by environmental activist Aleksandr Nikitin in an address to the American Chemical Society at their meeting in Washington in August. Nikitin has been persecuted for his activities in his native Russia and tried for treason. He was acquitted in December of last year by a St. Petersburg court, after intense international protest, including an open letter on his behalf written by then APS President Jerome I. Friedman in November, 1999. His case was appealed by the prosecution to the full Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court, but the appeal was denied on September 13, thereby probably bringing his prosecution to an end.

The Russian solution to the spent fuel problem is to transport it by train to the reactor at Mayak for reprocessing, a procedure Nikitin regards as unacceptable because the transportation is slow and dangerous and the reactor itself is leaky and pollutes the environment. He recommends that on-site storage facilities be built until more permanent disposal alternatives can be found.

On the other hand, Nikitin is spearheading a campaign, both in Russia and abroad, to stymie efforts to turn Russia into the repository of nuclear waste from the rest of the world. He described the Russian leadership as thinking that "Russia is a huge country, there is plenty of room to store nuclear waste without affecting the population," and he appealed to both the US government and the American scientific community to reject any offer to send nuclear waste to Russia.

Calling on his 23 years' experience in the Russian navy, including 11 years on submarines, Nikitin hypothesized that the Kursk sank because of human error in navigating in relatively shallow waters. He believes the craft collided with the seabed, which caused one or more of the torpedoes aboard to explode. In his estimation, this led to the breach of two of the four containment levels for the nuclear fuel, and he thinks that once the third level is breached by seawater, in about a month, some leakage of radiation could occur. This puts him at odds with American expert Andrew Karam of the University of Rochester, who has been quoted in the press as saying that there is no danger of radioactive leakage from the Kursk into the indefinite future.

When asked why the Russians did not ask sooner for international help in reaching the trapped sub, Nikitin said "You have to understand the mentality of the Russian military. The admirals care only about their shoulder boards and their cushy positions. They did not dare tell Putin that they couldn't do the job themselves."


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette