This July, the Indian Express reported: "India will get its first Akula class Russian nuclear submarine in 2009, equipping its navy with the quietest and lethal underwater war machine after a gap of 17 years to enhance its blue water capabilities. Factory trials of the multi-role nuclear submarine, christened INS Chakra which India-will get on a 10-year-lease, commenced on June 11 at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur shipyard and will be followed by sea trials, Russian defence sources said, adding it will be delivered by September 2009."

One of the service bays for Russian nuclear submarines is Andreyeva Bay, just 40 km off the Norwegian coast. And so, it is understandable that the Norwegians have always taken a special interest in the safety of Russia's nuclear submarines. Bellona, the Norway-based NGO, has concerned itself with environmental issues affecting northwest Russia and the Arctic for two decades, closely watching Russia's spent nuclear nuclear fuel from the submarines. There were once as many as 250 submarines. Around 120 were dismantled after the Soviet state collapsed, while over 100 are out of service but still in existence. But many are showing their age, and coupled with inadequate safety standards in Russia's system, problems have been cropping up since the mid-1990s.

The dismantling of nuclear submarines has been a thorny problem. The US has its own interests in accelerating this process: it pushed through disarmament agreements to cut Russia's nuclear capability to size, without any thought given to the disposal of the ships' waste. The Hollywood film, The Hunt for Red October, the name of a nuclear submarine, was based on two real-life incidents, put to fiction by novelist Tom Clancy. In 2003, a nuclear submarine, which was in terrible condition, sank; only one of its ten crew survived. Russia also has some nine nuclear-powered ice-breakers (ships) in Murmansk. In 1994, Bellona flew the EU Environment Commissioner with a Geiger counter over the area and found very high levels of radioactivity.

There is a great deal of international funding for Russia's nuclear power plant remediation, not least from Norway and other Scandinavian countries which fear that their own environment could get contaminated, but the process is inadequately supervised. Igor Kudrik, editor-in-chief of Bellona notes how Western politicians pay visits to troubled sites and are wined and dined in order to spend unutilised funds from international sources.

The Norwegian concerns have had some support within Russia itself, in particular at the Bellona Environmental Rights Centre in St Petersburg. The Centre is chaired by Alexander Nitikin, an internationally famous former nuclear submarine engineer who served as the chief inspector of Nuclear Safety Inspection in the Ministry of Defence in Russia; Nitikin was charged with espionage for his investigative research.

The criticism and concerns of both the Norwegian environmentalists and their counterparts in Russia's north were very evident at the third Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Lillehammer, Norway, September 11-14. Kudrik joined Nitikin is a scathing attack on Russia's nuclear industry. "Spent nuclear fuel is the most dangerous material," Kudrik told journalists, about 500 of whom attended the conference from 80 countries.

According to him, the Mayank Chemical Combine in the southern Ural mountains is facing seemingly insurmountable problems of radioactive contamination, both within the facility and via water sources into which the facility dumps "its hundreds of tonnes of waste". In 1957, when its waste was disposed of in the Techa river, it caused a major explosion. If there is a flood, the contamination could be carried by rivers right up to the Arctic Ocean. "Mayank will figure in the Guinness Book of Records as the most polluted site the world," he alleges.

In the 1970s, all socialist countries and the USSR were engaged in expanding their nuclear industry, and Soviet-designed reactors appeared in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary, in addition to the Soviet Union itself. After a few decades of operation, these plants have generated a considerable quantity of spent nuclear fuel. But in Russia, as elsewhere, there are no easy solutions at hand for storing this fuel safely. In certain cases, the spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed to recover reactor-grade plutonium for future use, but this only defers the problem, and changes the type of waste to be stored. It is no solution to the problem itself.

Bellona's undated document, The Russian Nuclear Industry: The Case for Reform, which was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, notes: "Russia is in the throes of a serious pile-up of spent nuclear fuel, and neither Russia, nor any other country in the world, has produced an adequate method for storing it for the long term. Most often, nuclear power plants are simply forced to find storage space for spent nuclear fuel on site."

Indian future, Russian past

For Indian readers, a lot of this can appear quite remote, but in fact it is too close for comfort. The Indo-US nuclear deal removes the hurdles for other countries to sell the country nuclear power equipment. While the deal is going through the wringer in the US Congress, no such democratic obstacles stand in the way of other suppliers, notably France and Russia. Indeed, these two suppliers are already in Delhi, seeing what they can market to a huge country with rising energy needs. France, which generates 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear stations and already has technology agreements in place with India, is obviously the front-runner, but Russia is a close runner-up.

"Government is taking steps to realise commercial cooperation with foreign partners in this field," reads a Ministry of External Affairs statement. "We have informed the USA about our intent to source state-of-the-art nuclear technologies and facilities based on the provisions of the 123 agreement from the US." Frontline magazine (10 October, 2008) cites experts' estimates that the trade in this field will account for $23 billion in the next 10 to 15 years. The US will be the prime beneficiary, followed by France and Russia. Indeed, Washington is demanding its pounds of flesh for seeing the 123 deal through, indicating in no uncertain terms that it wants to replace Russia as India's biggest arms supplier of all kinds.

Although the NSG deal is being cited as the answer to the country's burgeoning energy needs, the fact remains that nuclear power only provides 3 per cent of India's energy at present and this will rise to 7 per cent with all the additional nuclear power plants which the US, France and Russia, among others perhaps, will supply.

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During Russian President Vladimir Putin's two-day trip to India last year, Russian and Indian nuclear officials signed a memorandum of understanding on the construction of four additional one-gigawatt nuclear reactors at the Koodankulam plant in Tamilnadu, where Russia's Atomstroyexport is already building two units. The memo said that Russian contractors would construct still more reactors at unspecified new sites. Russia's Ambassador in New Delhi said a few days earlier that nuclear cooperation was "the most important issue on the agenda" during Putin's visit, according to the Executive Intelligence Review.

Rachel Douglas of the Review reported that First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, travelling with Putin, said that Russia would seek contracts for as many as ten new nuclear power units in India, provided such projects are cleared with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which has now come through. "It all depends on how India's relations with the NSG develop," said Zhukov. "If all goes well, Russia could build as many as ten units." Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) head Sergei Kiriyenko stressed to journalists that Russia, too, will continue to support NSG rules exceptions for India. He also noted that Putin and Prime Minister Singh had signed a memorandum on comprehensive nuclear power cooperation.

Other Russian nuclear power specialists, as well as Zhukov, suggested that there could be stiff competition for Indian contracts. (U.S. firms, for example, have not been contracted for any nuclear plant in India since the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) went into effect in 1968. Prior to that, India got two 220 MW GE Boiling Water Reactors [in Tarapur] from the United States in 1964.) But with India committed to bringing 40 gigawatts of new capacity on line by 2025, Zhukov said, "there should be plenty of work for everybody."

Clearly, the political imagination of nuclear power in India leads one to believe that we could witness a repeat of the Soviet-era mushrooming of plants everywhere. This time around, the technologies being peddled, by Russia as well as others, are far superior to those that went into the Soviet designs. Still, any rapid growth in Indian nuclear power production would likely result in a situation - in a few decades - quite similar to what the plants in the last great expansion are now facing.

Lack of openness

To compound matters, Russia comes down heavily on anti-nuclear activists, and in this there is much similarity to India's nuclear establishment bosses. In 1996, Nikitin was arrested in St Petersburg and put under preventive detention for 10 months for co-authoring a report entitled, The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination. He researched a section about Soviet nuclear submarine accidents and safety problems of naval reactor installations.

Nikitin later won the Goldman prize, one of the world's most prestigious environmental awards, in 1997. He addressed the annual congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists in St Petersburg in 2003, at which this correspondent was present. As he says: "I am convinced that Ecology cannot be secret. Environmental openness is an inalienable human right. Any attempt to conceal any information about harmful impacts on people and environment is a crime against humanity."

The challenge of the future, says Kudrik, is to tackle the lack of openness regarding the nuclear industry. The Introduction to Bellona's document carries a passage which could have been taken from any criticism of India's nuclear establishment: "From its inception, how much money the Russian nuclear industry takes in and how much it spends has been a tightly guarded secret, and the difference between the nuclear industry's stated and real budget is vast, creating fertile territory for mis-spending."

Under India's Atomic Energy Act of 1962, not even Parliament has access to such figures, all in the name of ensuring national security. India's environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists will have their work cut out for them, in the wake of the Indo-US deal. They will have to exercise the utmost vigilance to investigate what is being spent, and for what returns.