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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Radioactive Contamination

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Conclusions

The leaders of the Soviet Union during the cold war era believed they were creating a country secure from external threat and endowed with an abundance of electrical energy. In the final analysis, what they created was a landscape dotted with serious radioactive contamination problems, locally producing an abundance of human health problems. And although the cold war has ended, the environmental problems engendered by Soviet expediency will torment the former USSR republics for decades to come.

These environmental problems fall into three main categories: direct economic costs of cleaning up contaminated areas, human health concerns and their implicit fiscal mandates, and long-term environmental contamination of soils, water bodies, etc., together with their related costs. The combined economic implications are enormous, and clearly beyond the ability of the affected countries to deal with. Massive outside assistance is essential, and some has already been extended, to help with the most significant nuclear problems, particularly in Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus.

An unfortunate legacy of the USSR are extensive areas of abandoned contaminated by-products of uranium mining and milling sites, which threaten to contaminate water systems and release dust into the air. The area contaminated by uranium mining and milling operations in the entire Soviet Union has been estimated at 600 km2 (HASA, 1993). These sites in the republic of Kyrgyzstan have been specifically mentioned as of concern as a source of local contamination of water bodies (Bradley, 1997).

It is clear that the issue of nuclear safety, both in the military and civilian spheres, was greatly undervalued in the USSR. There is general agreement that the situation must be changed quickly, but this will not be easy. A long-time specialist on nuclear security issues notes five main problems that thwart improvement of nuclear safety in the former Soviet republics: (1) inadequate financial resources, (2) poor basic attitudes towards nuclear safety developed during the Soviet era, (3) inadequate regulatory mechanisms, (4) the uncertain fate of the flawed RBMK reactors, and (5) the departure of skilled scientists and workers from nuclear facilities (Potter, 1995). There is little indication that any of these problems will be resolved until well into this century. Although the existing RBMK reactors have been modified to prevent future Chernobyl-type incidents, the general disillusionment with them is shown by Russia's decision to terminate their manufacture.

A few other specific nuclear contamination questions could be mentioned. What nuclear facilities are actually needed today, and how many could be deactivated? Do adequate procedures (and funds) exist for decommissioning all the military and commercial nuclear reactors, and processing facilities, that will be shut down in the next two decades? In the interim, what must be done to ensure the safety of the facilities that must remain operating? Where should long-term radioactive waste repositories be sited? The list of nuclear challenges facing these newly independent nations is long and sobering.

In the meantime, the citizens of Russia, Ka2akhstan, Belarus, and the Ukraine must live with vast areas of contaminated lands as neighbours. Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, and all four of the southern Central Asian nations have smaller, but still serious, nuclear safety issues to contend with. Only Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan escaped the Soviet nuclear development relatively unscathed. But even the latter four republics, together with a number of nearby European nations, are potentially downwind of possible future problems.

The outside world recognizes that it must assist in finding viable answers to these problems. Meantime, the health of thousands of people in the former Soviet republics remains at risk. At a minimum, the experience of the USSR with its many atomic energy programmes has taught the world much about the ultimate costs of a cavalier attitude towards nuclear power and its residuals.

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