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The Soviet Union's Deadly Legacy in the Arctic

DR. GRIGORY BARENBOIM of Moscow's Physics and Technics Institute recently stunned United States scientists in Washington, D.C., with the revelation that "up to a billion curies" of radiation linger along the fringe of the Arctic ecosystem - the result of decades of "peaceful" Soviet nuclear explosions.

A few weeks earlier Alexi Yablokov, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's top environmental adviser, had revealed to US scientists that the nuclear reactor from the Soviet icebreaker Lenin had been quietly dumped into the Kara Sea in the central Siberian Arctic.

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For the small cadre of international scientists who monitor and work in the Arctic, the flow of information let loose by the breakup of the former Soviet Union is slowly revealing an emerging environmental disaster.

In its relentless pursuit of development and industrialization, the Soviet Union for decades used nuclear explosions to harness the natural resources of the nation. Nuclear explosions were used for everything from constructing dams to extending the life of oil and gas wells. The result is a deadly legacy of communism whose effects will linger long after the political and economic fate of the region is decided.

Published reports and unpublished information passed on to US intelligence agencies have identified more than 120 instances of nonmilitary nuclear devices detonated in the Soviet Union during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. These devices were used to build dams, mines, and underground storage for crude oil and toxic wastes. As part of their nuclear-weapons testing and development program, the Soviets also detonated hundreds of nuclear devices above and under the plains of Kazakhstan and on the Arctic island o f Novaya Zemyla.

The effects of these Soviet nuclear explosions are not likely to be contained within the borders of the disintegrating empire. Nuclear contamination of groundwater in the former Soviet Union is said to be rampant. If this radiation finds its way into the northward-flowing Siberian rivers that empty into the Arctic ocean, there is concern that one of our planet's most important and fragile ecosystems - the Arctic - could be at risk.

The US and Russia share a population of indigenous residents, the Inuit, who could be affected by the USSR's nuclear legacy. Since Arctic tundra mosses and lichen grow slowly and live for years, they collect and concentrate radionuclides. These lichen and mosses are eaten by caribou and reindeer later consumed by humans.

All people who live and work in the Arctic have cause to be concerned. Russian scientists who are familiar with the extent of this emerging environmental catastrophe are hoping that the US - their Arctic neighbor via Alaska - will assist them in monitoring and containing this Arctic radiation. We must act immediately.

First, we should undertake a focused Arctic radiation monitoring program to fully understand the extent of the Russian nuclear problem, its potential spread, and its impact on the larger Arctic environment.

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Second, we must make use of our existing environmental agreements with Russia. This May, US and Russian officials will meet in Washington under the auspices of a 1972 US-Russia agreement on environmental protection. Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly, the US official responsible for implementing this agreement, should mark the 20th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agreement by proposing and funding an action plan to address the range of environmental problems in the f ormer Soviet Union that place US citizens or interests at risk.

Third, we must fully leverage existing multilateral agreements, namely the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy signed in Rovaniemi, Finland, in June 1991. This agreement proposes the establishment of an Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program to monitor and assess the effects of pollutants - including radiation - in all aspects of the Arctic environment. We must vigorously support and comply with this agreement.

Fourth, the US should exploit the defense and intelligence collection methods at our disposal to monitor the movement of radiation as well as other environmental contaminants. In this changing world, our intelligence community must expand its environmental activities.

Finally, we should encourage the use of Russian scientists and technicians in an ongoing effort to assess and contain Arctic radiation. This area of research presents an excellent opportunity to provide these highly skilled individuals with employment alternatives outside of the weapons labs of third-world dictators.

Potentially elevated levels of radiation in any part of the Arctic is a global concern. The transformation of the former Soviet Union has provided us with the information, the resources, and the opportunity to tackle this problem. None of us can afford to ignore this frightening new development in the emerging new world order.

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