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Radiation No Big Deal for Northern City

Most residents of Murmansk worry more about economic survival than the hazards of area's atomic pollution. The country lacks funds for a high-tech cleanup.

March 20, 1998|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MURMANSK, Russia — The lighted weather display in the bustling city center tells more about the political atmosphere in Murmansk than the climate: Three luminous indices inform passersby of the temperature, the barometric pressure and the number of millirems of radiation bombarding their bodies.

Most residents of this invisibly polluted northern city take the radiation level as much in stride as the hostile weather. With more than 200 military and civilian reactors on the Kola Peninsula near Russia's border with Finland and Norway, nuclear power means jobs and cheap electricity as well as heightened exposure.

But as Murmansk residents shrug off the unknown risks of low-level radiation--many because they are more worried about day-to-day economic survival--environmentalists fear such apathy could further slow the already glacial pace of nuclear cleanup and containment.

"The background radiation level here is 10 times higher than the norm elsewhere in Europe, but surprisingly, this is a fact that stirs little discontent," says Valery Mararitsa, head of the Razum Sociological Research Center. "Generations have lived in Murmansk as the nuclear industry was being developed, and they seem to have gotten used to it."

His public opinion research center found in a recent study that more Murmansk residents were upset by automobile exhaust fumes than by radiation from the ubiquitous nuclear installations. Only 34% described radiation from active and decommissioned atomic submarines and ships as an ecological threat, and 70% had no idea what range of background radiation prevailed in their city despite five-times-daily radio broadcasts and the city-center weather display.

"We don't live in emergency conditions, just in conditions of somewhat elevated exposure," says Andrei Zolotkov, chief engineer for the Atomflot nuclear shipping fleet. He notes that nuclear workers around the world consider exposure to 5 rems of radiation per year acceptable, and that the background in Murmansk seldom exceeds 7 millirems per hour.

"We've already gotten over our spate of radiation phobia," says Ivan Veshnyakov, the chairman of the regional government's Ecology Committee. "Everyone in Murmansk understands perfectly that we face a difficult situation and the only way out is to work conscientiously toward improving radiation security without going into theatrics."

Murmansk has become a repository for Russia's decommissioned nuclear vessels and spent fuel assemblies because the naval and shipping services could afford to do nothing more than dock their antiquated equipment. Spent fuel from reactor operations since the 1960s was usually sealed in casks meant for temporary storage--no more than four or five years, until its permanent disposal.

Technologies have been developed to indefinitely contain old reactors and spent nuclear fuel, and a French firm has created a robotic program to remove radioactive objects that were ineffectively embedded in concrete. But Russia lacks the money to make use of those advances, and promised aid from the United States and Norway is woefully short of the $3 trillion Veshnyakov estimates could be needed.

But the nuclear accidents waiting to happen disturb some local residents and have given rise to a modest antinuclear movement that aims to create more activism among the next generation. Western and local "green" groups have disseminated coloring books with a message: Save energy, harness the region's immeasurable wind power and gear down from the Soviet era's heavy industrial focus.

"There is a unique opportunity here to reduce dependence on nuclear energy," says Galina Khoreva, Murmansk coordinator for the Norwegian-based Gaia Public Environmental Center. "The whole industrial focus of the region is being reconsidered."

Because of the harsh climate and distance from central Russia, the mines and metals-processing plants of the Kola Peninsula are finding it hard to compete with regions where operation, transport and living costs are much lower. Many heavy industries, such as the namesake plant in Nikel and the copper smelter in Pechenga, already operate far below capacity for want of sales.

"Many people want to return to the south or go to work in smaller private enterprises," Khoreva says of the exodus of workers.

But in the meantime, the region continues to be the main naval and merchant marine port for northern Russia, and the ill-contained nuclear wastes will not go away even if many people do.

"It goes without saying that the reactors and spent fuel have to be dealt with," Khoreva says. "But for the future, there needs to be a whole new strategy for the region."

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