RADIOACTIVE waste from about 80 scrapped military submarines on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia may have begun leaking into the sea.
The area, home to Russia's northern fleet, has one of the most concentrated collections of nuclear waste in the world. Moscow acknowledges that the waste poses a long-term pollution threat, but insists that nothing has leaked out.
But a Norwegian environmental group named Bellona has obtained figures from Russian scientists showing that contamination of the sediment around nuclear submarine bases on the peninsula has risen eightfold in the last three years. The findings are the first to be published for the area, as Western scientists have been barred from taking samples.
Researchers from the Russian Academy of Science's Marine Biology Institute in Murmansk collected over a hundred samples of sediment from 100 kilometres of coastline. They found that levels of cobalt 60 outside the naval base at Poljarny on Pala Bay rose from 10 to 80 becquerels per kilogram (bq/kg) between 1995 and 1997. According to Bellona, this is because a nearby store for liquid waste from submarine reactors is corroding.
Levels of caesium 137 in sediment in Andreeva Bay, just 50 kilometres from Norway, have also risen. Concentrations vary from 8 bq/kg 12 centimetres below the surface to 114 bq/kg 5 centimetres below the surface, indicating recent leaks.
Nils Boehmer, a nuclear scientist with Bellona, warns that these leaks could increase when the ice thaws as no maintenance was carried out on the storage tanks last year. Per Strand from the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority points out that levels of radioactivity in the sediment are low. But he adds that the "potential for releases" is due to be jointly investigated by Norwegian and Russian scientists in August.