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Russia: senior official warns of an ecological catastrophe occurring from the deteriorating condition of decommissioned nuclear submarines

PETER THOMPSON: A senior Russian official has warned the condition of reactors in 10 decommissioned subs are so dangerous they could explode, creating an ecological catastrophe. A senior adviser to President Yeltsin, Alexei Yablakoff(?), who heads the environmental section of the Russian Security Council, says Russia doesn't have the technology to deal with the problem.

In a moment, we'll hear from Alexei Yablakoff, but first this report on the dangerous legacy of the former Soviet nuclear fleet from Jonathan Marcus.

JONATHAN MARCUS: The Russian Navy has over 130 nuclear-powered submarines that have been withdrawn from service, and like its counterparts in the West, it seems to have little idea as to what to do with them. Of these, some 40 to 50 have had their nuclear fuel off-loaded, but the rest are simply tied up at their moorings and their deteriorating condition represents a potential ecological nightmare.

Alexei Yablakoff, a senior adviser to the Russian President, has made a careful study of this issue. His latest warning refers specifically to 10 submarines which he refers to as potential floating Chernobyls. Their reactors could explode if the situation, as he put it, gets out of control.

Joshua Handler, a leading expert on the Russian submarine fleet, who works with the environmental pressure group, Greenpeace, told the BBC that he believed that the 10 boats in question were those in which nuclear fuel rods were cracking and the Russians did not know how to get them out of the reactor core. He said that it was conceivable that under certain conditions there could be a small-scale nuclear chain reaction or, alternatively, an interaction with water could lead to the build-up of hydrogen gas. In both cases, the result would be an explosion.

Mr Handler recently visited the Russian base at Severodyinsk in the White Sea near Arkangel'sk where a large number of decommissioned submarines are moored with their fuel still on board. As if to underline the seriousness of the problem, he noted that some of the submarines had been there for around 17 years.

PETER THOMPSON: Jonathan Marcus reporting there. Well, earlier this morning I spoke to President Yeltsin's environment adviser, Alexei Yablakoff from Moscow, and I asked Mr Yablakoff what's the problem with the spent nuclear fuel rods in the submarines.

ALEXEI YABLAKOFF: Every submarine, every nuclear submarine, have some nuclear fuel in its nuclear reactors, and after several years this nuclear fuel have to be unloaded. We call it spent nuclear fuel. We have no special storage place for spent nuclear fuel. Now it's happened that it's such a strange story that nobody think about this situation 20 years ago, and now we have enormous amount of spent nuclear fuel on the shore. We have not enough railroad gauge to take this spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing plant. You have such calculation if we used this existing railroad gauge, it need about more than 100 years, maybe 150 years, to take all spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing plant.

PETER THOMPSON: Is the problem that you do not have sufficient railway carriages to carry this nuclear fuel?

ALEXEI YABLAKOFF: Problem is the proper storage place. All storage place overcrowded now. It's create also enormous problem. Sometimes I call this situation 'floating Chernobyl'.

PETER THOMPSON: Floating Chernobyl?

ALEXEI YABLAKOFF: Yes. Maybe you know that we have bad history. In 1985, at that time it was absolutely secret, top secret, we have radioactive catastrophe directly during process of unloading of spent nuclear fuel. It happened in Charvma(?) Bay in Japan Sea(?), near Vladivostok. As far as I know, 11 people were killed because of irradiation. We have such a history.

PETER THOMPSON: Is the worst environmental problem in Russia?

ALEXEI YABLAKOFF: Not of course. Next problem, environmental problem, is the quality drinking water. Practically all over Russia the quality of drinking water became worse and worse. This is maybe the main problem. Also deforestation, desertification, and many, many other problems. Maybe for better understanding our environmental problem, I inform you that during last 10 years the life expectancy in Russia dropped drastically for five years. Now average expected life span here in Russia for men about 58 years. It's a dramatic situation, and partly, not all this decreasing of life span connected with environment, but partly, maybe 30 per cent, maybe 40 per cent of this decline directly connected with bad quality of environment.

PETER THOMPSON: Mr Yablakoff, thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning.