Among the branches of the Russian economy which really earn hard currency for the state, the nuclear industry occupies one of the top places. The export revenue of the Atomic Energy Ministry in 1999 totaled $1,891.4 million, which practically corresponds to the level of 1998 ($1,887.4 million). According to the ministry’s predictions, in 2000 its export revenue will reach $2,188 million. This is only the civil component of the nuclear industry. Meanwhile, the Atomic Energy Ministry still accomplishes significant defense tasks. The recent visit of Vladimir Putin to the Urals Mountains region was dedicated to these.
On March 31, in Snezhinsk, Putin participated in the work of an expanded commission of the Atomic Energy Ministry. Other meeting participants were Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, and Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov. Speaking at the meeting Putin announced the necessity of efficient restructuring and conversion of the nuclear sector of the defense industry. “At present we need a well considered and sensible conversion taking into account all economic and social consequences,” said Putin, “if we still delay the conversion the further budget subsidies will not be effective.” Putin added that last year the government met all budget commitments to the industry, and would maintain this trend in the future.
During the conversion there should not be “mechanical staff cuts, this is a dangerous path,” noted Putin. He stressed that the role of nuclear industry was growing, “We will preserve the nuclear weapons arsenal of Russia,” said Putin, and added that “the nuclear industry is a sphere of strategic interests of the state,” concluding that “there is still not common concept and legal base for the problem of nuclear submarines discarding.” Putin specially pointed at the necessity to solve the problems involving protection of the people who live near nuclear installations. The problems about which spoke Putin are really vital. According to official information of the Atomic Energy Ministry, at least 150 of the 245 nuclear submarines built in the USSR and Russia between 1957 and 1995 have been decommissioned (over 90 of them in the Northern Fleet).
However, spent nuclear fuel has been unloaded from less than half of these submarines. Just compare: the US decommissioned 95 of 191 nuclear submarines built in 1960s-1990s, and 70 of them have been fully dismantled.
In Russia the pace of dismantling nuclear submarines is so slow that after decommissioning they sit in the dock for 10-15 years awaiting unloading of spent nuclear fuel, and cutting into scrap. During this period there is a danger of seal failure and hence sinking because of corrosion and wear. Despite reactors of discarded submarines being shut down, and the probability of spontaneous nuclear reaction being low, experts still speak about a possibility of radioactive waste leakage as a result of natural disasters, subversion, or because of mistakes by maintenance personnel.
The fact that the problem of dismantling nuclear submarines is not solved is due to two main reasons: absence of financing, and over-saturation of storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel. We need to say that Russian authorities are taking measures to improve the situation. On May 28, 1998, the government issued the resolution “On measures for acceleration of decommissioning nuclear submarines and surface vessels with nuclear propulsion systems.” According to the document, by January 1, 1999, the Defense Ministry should have transferred all its nuclear submarines listed for decommissioning to the Atomic Energy Ministry. Henceforth only the Atomic Energy Ministry is responsible for the fate of all dismantled nuclear submarines. This ministry maintains the crews of dismantled submarines before the submarines are delivered to shipyards for cutting into scrap. The Atomic Energy Ministry is also the state customer and coordinator of the complex of relevant measures. Performance of functions of state supervision on the nuclear and radioactive safety during the submarines decommissioning is laid on the department for state supervision of nuclear and radioactive safety of the Defense Ministry.
According to experts of the Atomic Energy Ministry, to solve the problem of nuclear and radioactive safety of old submarines in the Northern and Pacific Fleets it is necessary to invest $1-1.5 billion. Even given such expenditures the priority work will take about a decade, and the further recovery of the regions will require a few more years.
Besides the problem of decommissioning nuclear submarines, the Atomic Energy Ministry and the Defense Ministry are also concerned about some other problems. Speaking at the meeting in Snezhinsk Defense Minister Igor Sergeev outlined the priority tasks accomplishment of which is necessary for development of the Russian nuclear weapon complex.
Sergeev noted that in 1999 the state order for nuclear ammunition production was fulfilled. Last year the second regimen armed with Topol-M strategic missiles was placed on combat duty. Sergeev also stressed that the priority task in 2000 would be maintenance of the Central Nuclear Testing Ground Novaya Zemlya “in a viable condition.” Among the measures which could help this process he mentioned organization of a closed administrative territory on Novaya Zemlya.
Why does Russia need its former nuclear testing ground? According to Admiral Oleg Yerofeev, the former Northern Fleet Commander, the testing ground still remains a facility for testing of high power conventional ammunition. Under conditions of financial crisis renewal of the nuclear armament in Russia is associated with substantial difficulties. Meanwhile there is a possibility of spending much less money on nuclear ammunition upgrading to prolong its service time. However for this purpose experiments are required aimed at finding out how safe the nuclear ammunition is.
Such experiments were formerly conducted at real nuclear weapons. However Russia signed the nuclear weapons test ban treaty, and has not conducted such tests since 1990. Meanwhile control and experiments with aging nuclear warheads are simply necessary. The thing is that as a result of long storage physical-chemical and tactical-technical properties of nuclear ammunition change under the influence of weapon plutonium or uranium. Under unfavorable circumstances this changing could result in unauthorized actuation of nuclear ammunition. To prolong the storage time of nuclear ammunition it is necessary to know for sure where and when its mechanical assemblies, electronics, or chemical explosives are to be replaced. Such characteristics are received during nuclear explosions modeling.
Experiments which are called hydrodynamic or sub-critical in Russia are held on Novaya Zemlya in underground shafts. There is a well developed infrastructure here, and the geographical conditions are also suitable (granite, deep shafts, and permafrost) for sub-critical experiments. The testing ground is located far from large populated spots. For example, Amderma, the nearest settlement, is located 280 kilometers from Novaya Zemlya. Just compare: in the US, Las Vegas is located 120 kilometers from the former nuclear testing site in Nevada.
After breakup of the Soviet Union Russia lost the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing ground (founded in 1948, 467 nuclear explosions conducted, including 343 underground ones). Last year nuclear ammunition was tested on Novaya Zemlya the service time of which equaled 13-14 years. According to Colonel General Igor Valynkin, the Director of the 12th Main Department of the Defense Ministry in charge of nuclear weapons operation and storage, this ammunition will be upgraded. The General did not answer the question how long this ammunition would serve. However we cannot rule out that this ammunition will serve until 2007, when lots of obsolete missiles are to be discarded. Just about 40 million rubles has been spent on experiments on Novaya Zemlya. This is only 2% of the military part of the Atomic Energy Ministry expenditures. Thus the testing ground on Novaya Zemlya helps Russia provide defense capability, and maintain nuclear parity with largest powers of the world under the circumstances of heavy social and economic crisis. There is a common opinion that Novaya Zemlya has become a radioactive dump of Russia, that thousands of tons of radioactive waste from ships of the Northern Fleet have been buried here. According to Admiral Yerofeev, this is not trues, and there are no radioactive wastes buried on the archipelago. Yerofeev added that there was more waste stored on the Kola Peninsula, and in the Arkhangelsk Region.
Thus, despite the current economic problems, Russia is trying to develop its military nuclear-technical programs. The interest of the new president in nuclear issues shows that such programs have a future.