Forget Hunt for Red October. In reality, post-Soviet Russia cannot afford to properly
maintain or mothball its aging nuclear-submarine fleet, so scores of old, rusty reactors
are disintegrating in Russia's polar seas. You would think the man who called the
government's attention to the problem would get a medal. Instead, Russia literally wants
to kill the messenger: whistleblower Aleksandr Nikitin faces the death penalty.
Nikitin, a nuclear engineer and retired captain in the Russian navy, committed the
crime of working with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona to produce a bleak report
on the Russian submarine fleet. Released in November 1995, it describes a series of
submarine accidents between 1961 and 1995 in which at least 507 people were killed by
radioactivity released by explosions or leaks, and blames rushed and defective submarine
construction, inadequate testing, poor crew training, and an irresponsible military
"Without international cooperation and financing," it warns, "a grave
situation could arise which can be pictured as a Chernobyl in slow motion. If safety
measures are not implemented, major accidents and the release of fissile material will be
Ironically, international disarmament treaties requiring the decommissioning of
submarines have made matters worse; while 130 submarines have already been mothballed,
Russia lacks the funds to defuel the submarine's reactors and store the wastes. The city
of Severodvinsk, a center for decommissioning, has appealed fruitlessly to Moscow for
financial assistance for electricity, salaries, housing, and heating for shipyard workers.
Bellona fears that the subs, many of which have already suffered accidents, will sink into
the White Sea before the financing, know-how, and infrastructure can be mustered to remove
their nuclear fuels. Even more ominously, the report warns that fires or explosions as the
subs decay could result in catastrophic reactor meltdowns.
The Kola Peninsula where the Russian submarine fleet is based, just east of northern
Finland, holds the greatest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world, with 18
percent of all reactors. A major accident there could contaminate marine mammals and fish
stocks throughout the North Atlantic; a submarine surfacing after an accident at sea could
also spread radiation to large areas of the European Arctic.
Instead of welcoming the international cooperation the authors of the report had hoped
to inspire, Russian officials reverted to repressive tactics reminiscent of the Stalin
era. Agents of the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) raided Bellona's offices in
Murmansk, confiscating files and computers and interrogating researchers. Last year on
February 6 they also rousted Nikitin, one of three coauthors of the report, from his St.
Petersburg apartment, detaining him in solitary confinement for ten months on charges of
forgery, treason, and revealing state secrets.
"This has been a very strange case," says Mariana Katzarova, a researcher in
London for Amnesty International. The Security Service, she charges, has openly violated
its own investigative procedures, and the prosecution of Nikitin violates clauses of the
Russian constitution that were written in recognition of the environmental disasters of
the Soviet era and that specifically forbid "secrecy in matters that may constitute
hazards to the environment or the health of individuals." Bellona insists that its
analysis was based on open sources, including newspapers, professional literature, and
research reports. Amnesty's own investigation came to the same conclusion, and the
organization adopted Nikitin as a prisoner of conscience.
"He was trained and employed to care about nuclear safety and he took his job
seriously," says Stephen Mills, director of the Sierra Club's human-rights and
environment campaign. "And now he faces the death penalty."
Intense international pressure did lead to Nikitin's release from prison last December,
but the charges against him still stand, and Bellona's report remains banned in
Russiathe first publication to be prohibited there since the fall of the Soviet
"This is both an environmental issue and a political issue of free speech,"
says Kay van der Horst, executive director of Bellona USA. "It is vital to make
Russian officials understand that the Bellona report should be fully accessible to the
Russian public, and that the charges against Aleksandr Nikitin be dropped."