Russian Arctic Pollution
STORY: One of the first places scientists went to was Chernaya Bay, a remote inlet on the southern tip of Novaya Zemlya, an island in the Russian Arctic Ocean. Novaya Zemlya was the site of more than 200 nuclear tests conducted from 1955 to 1962, according to published CIA reports. Dr. Brad Moran, a chemical oceanographer from the University of Rhode Island, analyzed sediment from the bottom of the bay, collected by researchers with Canada's Bedford Institute of Oceanography.
MORAN: "We discovered a fair amount of information. Novaya Zemlya was quite interesting in that we found exceedingly high levels of plutonium in the Chernaya Bay sediments. So we found a very clear signal of these low-yield underwater nuclear tests that had been conducted. In Chernaya Bay itself, those high levels in the sediment are to be avoided."
Throughout the Cold War, literally dozens of towns in the Russian Arctic were cordoned off to the public as the Soviet military researched, developed and tested a broad array of nuclear and chemical weapons. One such area was Tomsk-7, a vast military-industrial complex in the heart of the Russian Arctic. Flowing out of Tomsk-7 is the Ob River, which like many Siberian rivers, makes its way to the Arctic Ocean. Moran collected sediment samples from the river's bottom back in 1994, and tested them for nuclear contamination.
MORAN: "In the Ob River we found what we suspected. We found mostly background levels of plutonium and iodine. But as we moved further upstream toward these nuclear processing facilities, there were higher levels of these radionuclides of interest."
The fact that scientists like Dr. Moran and others found significant levels of contamination in dozens of sites across the Russian Arctic isn't surprising. What's interesting is how they're now using these contaminantssuch as iodine, cesium, plutonium and other radioactive isotopesto learn how Arctic Ocean currents flow, how nutrients are transported through the sea, and how these contaminants find their way into the food chain.
MORAN: "Really, what I think the value of the data from Chernaya Bay, and potentially the Ob River, was that they are useful tracers to study the marine environment. We know that these materials have been put in at certain locations, and we can us that to measure rates of water and sediment transport in the Arctic Ocean. It's just an ironic twist of fate that deliberate nuclear contamination has left us with a number of very useful tracers."
Scientists know very little about the circulation of the Arctic Ocean, but they do know that what flows into this largely ice-covered sea will eventually end up in places as far away as Alaska. Dr. Moran says nuclear contamination may have already reached Alaska waters.
MORAN: "There's no doubt that the general circulation of water will bring contaminants from the eastern Arctic to the western Arctic, which is toward Alaska. In fact you can measure several tracers that show evidence of that already, such as cesium 137, iodine, and plutonium. We're hoping to get more samples for analysis here from along the eastern Siberian Shelf, because we suspect the water is moving along from the Kara Sea to the Laptev Sea to the Chukchi Sea, and toward the coastal areas of Alaska."
Dr. Moran says not even the Arctic food chain is immune to the environmental problems created by the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States.
MORAN: "I can say that there was definite evidence of plutonium uptake in some biological organisms. The fact that we measured elevated levels of plutonium in some of these biological organisms indicates that it is being taken up into the food chain."
OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.
Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:
S. Bradley Moran, Associate Professor
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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