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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Radioactive Contamination

<<< Contamination Concerns in the Arctic Region | Environmental Problems Index | Conclusions >>>

'Peaceful Atom' Explosions

For many years, the USSR conducted underground 'peaceful atom' detonations throughout Russia and in four other republics (Table 19.1).

Sources of radioactive wastes in the former Soviet republics

Table 19.1 Sources of radioactive wastes in the former Soviet republics
ICBM - intercontinental ballistic missile

Generally, there was an economic motivation for these, such as stimulating oil or gas recovery. As can be seen from Figure 19.1, several of these were set off in European Russia, and a very large number were exploded in the Urals region, particularly near the Kazakhstan border (an atmospheric nuclear device was also exploded here as part of a troop training exercise).

Three small explosions were set off in the Komi Republic, to create a canal to divert water from the Pechora and Vychegda rivers (which flow to the Arctic Ocean) southward into the Kama which feeds the Volga. The goal was to augment flows in the Volga-Kama hydroelectric complexes, and bring additional water to the Caspian Sea. This plan has since been abandoned.

In 1973-74, the Soviet Union also used underground explosions near the city of Sterlitamak to create cavities for disposing of toxic industrial wastes. More than 20 million cubic metres of liquid wastes were pumped into one cavity over thirteen years, and more than 150 000 cubic metres of toxic effluents went into the other cavity (Priroda, February 1991). Numerous 'peaceful atom' explosions were conducted near the town of Udachnyy in the Yakut ASSR (now Sakha-Yakutia) to stimulate natural gas production. At least one of these reportedly released radiation into the surrounding area (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 30 July 1991).

Central Asia was also the location of several 'peaceful atom' subsurface detonations. At least five occurred in Kazakhstan, and one each in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The first Soviet explosion of this type took place in Kazakhstan on 15 January 1965, with the goal of creating a lake to capture water from snow melt (Nucleonics Week, 9 May 1991). The newspaper hvestia on 22 July 1991 reported that radiation had vented to the atmosphere from this explosion.

Most of these explosions did not produce significant surface contamination, though as noted above, some did vent to the atmosphere. They illustrate well, however, the breadth and determination of the nuclear weapons programme in the USSR.

<<< Contamination Concerns in the Arctic Region | Environmental Problems Index | Conclusions >>>



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