How One Man Is Trying To Stave Off Another Russian Nuclear Disaster

Posted: January 15, 1999

Sometimes a lone individual can illuminate a problem with which the world hasn't yet come to grips. Such is the case of retired Russian Navy Capt. Alexander Nikitin, who will come before Russia's Supreme Court on Feb. 4 for a decision on whether he should be tried for espionage.

Nikitin's crime? He revealed how Russian submarine bases on the Kola Peninsula near Norway have become dangerous dumping grounds for nuclear waste. The Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group that published Nikitin's findings, says that 90 reactors' worth of radioactive fuel from decommissioned subs is sitting in cracking tanks, open containers or rusting hulks. Foreign experts aren't allowed near them.

``The ships' condition is so bad that they could just sink,'' Nikitin told me in an interview in St. Petersburg in December. Bellona ( calls the situation ``a Chernobyl in slow motion.''

Nikitin's case highlights how the Cold War's end and Russia's economic collapse have foisted a new kind of nuclear threat on the world. Russia is disarming its nukes but can't afford to store the radioactive matter safely. Russian officials (from embarrassment or ingrained secrecy) want to keep the extent of the mess hushed up.

The Russians can't agree on where to build new storage facilities or how to pay. Meanwhile, a bankrupt Moscow isn't paying maintenance or staff salaries for naval repair yards servicing the Northern Fleet. Food is short; crews are desperate: In September, a 19-year-old sailor shot eight comrades and threatened to blow up his nuclear attack sub before committing suicide in the torpedo compartment.

But in the new Russia, a lone crusader like Nikitin at least has a chance to get his message out. ``I am the first Russian who was accused of espionage who was released before a final court decision,'' he says. A Russian court threw out the charges last October - but gave the FSB (the KGB's successor) a second chance to present stronger evidence. Now the Supreme Court must decide whether to dismiss the case or let the FSB try Nikitin again.

If he is exonerated, more Russians may join in exposing their country's new nuclear dangers. This, in turn, could galvanize Western governments to provide more financial aid to help Russia store its nuclear waste safely.

``When [the FSB] started this investigation,'' says Nikitin, ``they thought no one would know.'' But the security services didn't realize that they were living in a different Russia, more connected with the outside world.

Nikitin, 45, who had devoted his 23-year navy career to working on issues of nuclear waste security, had linked up to that larger world. After his retirement in 1992, he was desperate to publicize the deteriorating nuclear waste situation but couldn't find work with a Russian organization.

Most Russians were too busy figuring out how to survive in their new situation to worry about radiation dangers. Friends and former military colleagues grasped the problem, he said, but dared to talk about it only ``in their kitchens.''

Then Nikitin met Bellona staffers and agreed to help them with nonclassified information. ``When I started to write my report, my goal was to tell the world that there was a very serious problem which Russia couldn't solve on its own,'' says Nikitin, an intense, handsome scholarly-looking man with a dark bushy mustache and aviator glasses.

In 1996, the FSB arrested him for spying. In a throwback to the Soviet era, he was imprisoned for 10 months and denied medicine for his ulcers, and his lawyer was beaten up by mysterious thugs. After a wave of international protest, from Amnesty International to Vice President Gore, he was let out of jail pending resolution of his case.

Nikitin believes the outcome will determine whether Russians will finally confront their nuclear dilemma. ``During Soviet times, there were special symbols which it was impossible to discuss, like the nuclear industry, the Ministry of Defense, the KGB. No one could say anything critical of their activities. And they don't like it that someone now begins to tell the truth.''

But even if that truth comes out, it won't produce the funds to secure Russia's nuclear waste. At present, the United States spends around $400 million a year on a program to dismantle weapons of mass destruction in Russia, including help in cutting up submarines that once carried ballistic missiles. But this doesn't address the lack of storage for spent fuel from the submarines and other radioactive waste.

Nikitin would like to see the Europeans and America spend much more to remove waste from submarines and build special storage facilities. He knows the obstacles are enormous. Russia's military is wary and humiliated; its atomic energy officials have big mistakes to hide. And Westerners are unwilling to bear the costs.

But consider the alternatives. Nikitin knows of two cases in which thieves stole fissile material from northern naval bases. One group was caught; one threw it away. (See the Inquirer series this week on the dangers of nuclear theft.)

How much is it worth to prevent a terrorist bomb or another Chernobyl?

Trudy Rubin's e-mail address is

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