I was disappointed but not surprised to receive a recent e-mail from Wilson Center Senior Scholar Murray Feshbach, warning me off visiting St. Petersburg. A demographer who closely tracks environmental and health conditions in the former Soviet Union, Feshbach was instrumental in pulling back the curtain on the Soviet Union’s catastrophic environmental legacy in his co-authored 1993 volume Ecocide in the USSR. Murray’s message contained further evidence of Russian environmental decline. In this case, institutional failings are throwing Russia open for the business of accepting the world’s nuclear waste. Russian civilian and military radioactive waste is now being supplemented by waste from the Netherlands and Germany—and soon, Pakistan, India, and China.
Up to 10,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride are expected to travel through St. Petersburg in the next six months, according to the local branch of the international environmental pressure group Bellona….According to official sources, cargos containing depleted uranium hexafluoride arrive in the city on average ten times a month…radioactivity levels near the trains have significantly exceeded the norm on several occasions over the past year.
Environmental and health issues in Russia have not always looked so dire. In the early 1990s, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, two exciting developments came out of northwest Russia from two unlikely sources: the military and civil society. In one of the most militarized regions of the world, the Russian military cooperated with the Norwegian military and eventually the U.S. military on joint assessments of threats posed by nuclear waste. The 1994 trilateral Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation agreement provided a mechanism for addressing radioactive waste and, more broadly, for finding a way for militaries to talk during the Cold War thaw in an example of what is now called environmental peacemaking or environmental peacebuilding.
Health concerns connected to nuclear waste also formed the basis of a blossoming civil society movement in early-1990s Russia. Both Russian and international NGOs were increasingly able to gather data and bring to light nuclear waste’s myriad threats to people and ecosystems. The Norwegian Bellona Foundation and its Russian affiliates were particularly effective in revealing the scope of the problems and prodding governments to take more aggressive action to respond.
But even by the mid-1990s, the tide was beginning to turn back to a secretive and securitized approach to environmental data. The celebrated treason case of former Russian submarine captain Aleksandr Nikitin was merely the most visible example of the recriminalization of sharing environmental data. Nikitin’s “crime” was co-authoring the 1996 Bellona Foundation report The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination. Following a year of imprisonment and the achievement of Amnesty International prisoner status, Nikitin was released, but his celebrated case was succeeded by the Russian government’s broad-stroke efforts to dial back environmental openness and the rights that came with it. We may be seeing the effects of this return to environmental secrecy in the current row over nuclear waste transportation through St. Petersburg.