by James M. Brooks and Michael A. Champ
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the communist government of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) sent its most toxic and hazardous industries to its vast, barren, and unpopulated polar region. Many of these industries dumped highly toxic and radionuclear wastes into rivers, the Kara Sea, or landfills in regions with frozen soil and permafrost with no consideration for the potential release and movement of the materials. Russian nuclear submarines with intact reactors were abandoned in the shallow waters of the Arctic shelf.
Reports suggest that over one billion Curies of nuclear materials and over 100 billion metric tons of mixed industrial wastes have been left in the Northern and Arctic regions of the FSU, either in crude landfills or discharged directly into rivers. These materials were dumped in such a manner that natural processes of run-off, river flow, and circulation may transport them to the Arctic ocean basin. The disclosures in the early 1990s came from a range of independent sources including defense agencies, academic researchers, former Russian government officials, and other governments. The reports were unprecedented and the potential damage of such magnitude that the veracity of the reports was questioned.
As a result, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) initiated the Arctic Nuclear Waste Assessment Program (ANWAP) to study radionuclide contamination in the Arctic. To participate in the program we assembled a team of researchers from the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) and the Department of Oceanography at Texas A&M University to conduct a limited expedition in the Kara Sea and Yenisey River studying radionuclide contamination in these regions. Due to the success of the expedition, we received funds to expand the scope of investigations and conduct expeditions in 1994 and 1995 to other areas in the Russian Arctic.
Oceanographers search for evidence of nuclear contamination using different types of coring devices to sample sediments in the Kara Sea.
[136K] A piston corer is carefully lowered over the side of the ship.
[94K] The same piston corer viewed from above.
[94K] The team prepares to store sediment which as been lifted from the seafloor with a box-shaped corer.
Our cruises are collaborative research efforts with the Research Institute of Nature Conservation of the Arctic and North (RINCAN) in St. Petersburg, Russia. RINCAN is part of the Russian Ministry of Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources (PE&NR). GERG leases Russian ships for the expeditions and equips them for full oceanographic sampling capabilities. The 1995 expedition in August and September used an ice strengthened, 66-meter Russian Hydrobase vessel from Arkhangelsk, Russia on the White Sea. Nine scientists from GERG and the Department of Oceanography plus about ten Russian collaborators from a variety of Russian institutions coordinated by RINCAN participated, and the cruise focused primarily on the Laptev Sea.
The long-term objective of our study is to provide the necessary chemical data to assess the effects of long-term environmental contamination to the Arctic environment and ecosystems in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Specifically, we wish to determine the rate, quantity, and types of radionuclides discharged from the major rivers to the Russian marginal seas, including the Laptev, Kara, Pechora and East Siberia Seas. We also aim to determine the quantity and types of radionuclides in indicator organisms in Russian Arctic rivers and marginal seas, as well as the geographic distribution of radionuclides in near-shore and upstream sediments.
Members of our team will investigate the role of microscopic particles called colloids in the transport of nuclear-derived radionuclides, such as plutonium, in the water column. Others will collect and use physical oceanographic data, such as water temperature and salinity, to use in studies of current patterns and hydrography in the region. This data will be used in computer models of circulation and studies of contaminants. Still others study the geological, geotechnical and geophysical characteristics of areas where sediments are deposited to provide a framework for understanding the sedimentological processes at work in the Russian Arctic.
Oceanography, Texas A&M University
Updated September 13, 1995