BITS Research Report 97.1
November 1997

I. Where are we today?

Pitfalls of Operational Arms Control and Environmental Security

by Kay van der Horst


The past two decades of arms control - whether nuclear, chemical, biological or conventional - have ingrained in most of us the understanding that the priority of arms control is to eliminate weapons, and to scale down offensive and defensive capabilities. There is little doubt that this is, and should continue to be, the priority of our efforts to advance arms control. But what does arms control mean beyond dismantling weapons systems and creating safeguards for fissile and B/C (WMD) material ? The legacy of arms control is also a tremendous, yet little thought-of, global environmental security risk that is only now beginning to unfold.

Bi- and Multilateral efforts have only over the course of the past three years been initiated to retroactively address the environmental legacies of past arms control agreements. Unfortunately, the complexity of initiating and implementing such clean-up programs now, have brought about a host of complex obstacles and discouraging impediments that almost rival the complexity of negotiating arms control agreements themselves. Utilizing the example of ongoing multilateral arctic military nuclear waste clean-up programs, this short concept paper will:

  1. identify the operational obstacles to successful arms control related environmental security programs; and
  2. provide potential solutions to some of the more prevalent concerns.

The end of the Cold War and the START treaties have rendered large numbers of nuclear submarines, once at the forefront of Cold War hostilities, useless. Far less drained by economic and other burdens of the Cold War arms race, the United States appears to have successfully managed, compared to its former rival the Soviet Union, the disposal and storage of these nuclear submarines and of the affluent military nuclear wastes. This incapacity is mostly due to the tremendous economic shortfalls that Russia is currently suffering. The problem is exacerbated by insufficient storage facilities for large amounts of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and other types of liquid or solid radioactive wastes. Furthermore, a large number of submarines that have outlived there useful service life add to the number of nuclear submarines that are awaiting decommissioning.

Recently a high ranking official of the Russian Navy stated that the Northern Fleet, once the Soviet Union Navy’s crown jewel, is forced to decommission 92 nuclear submarines, of which the majority are in "highly unsatisfactory condition"(70). The submarines still contain their nuclear fuel and are often undermanned. They pose a significant regional and global environmental risk.

Beyond the acute financial shortages that are an impediment to the decommissioning process, the existing severe shortage of nuclear waste storage facilities sets another, equally significant block to the successful implementation of the efficient and economic deactivation and decommissioning procedures for nuclear submarines.

Approximately 20.000 m solid radioactive waste (SRW) is stored at 11 different sites along the coast of the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk. All the facilities are full and at a number of them highly active SRW is stored in open fields outside the storage building. The open-stored waste is not protected by any containment structures. Over 21.000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies are stored at several sites around the Kola Peninsula - equivalent to 90 nuclear reactors. The storage facilities have all exceed their storage capacity and are in very poor condition. Due to the lack of funds that would be required to upgrade and expand these existing facilities, the Russian Navy has been forced to resort to open air storage of the SNF.

Furthermore, High Level Liquid Radioactive Waste (HLLRW) is stored at almost all of the naval bases, either in land-based tanks, or on board service ships or floating tankers. Most of the storage tanks for liquid radioactive waste are full, and a number of them are in very poor condition. In addition to the already existing liquid waste, the operational Russian nuclear submarine fleet produces several thousand m of HLRW per year. The storage crisis is precipitated by the lack of appropriate treatment plants and technologies to cope with high saline nuclear submarine HLRW.

The litany of the above described environmental risk factors is just the tip of the iceberg. Very little knowledge exists in either the US or Russian Camps on the scope of the above described land based contaminant source terms.

To mitigate potential serious impacts on regional and global environment and security by these source terms, many countries have set out to aid Russia in its crisis by assisting in the development of storage and nuclear waste management and clean-up infrastructures. However, due to the fact that the Murmansk area is a Russian national security sensitive zone that contains a significant number of high security areas, cooperation on devising clean-up programs and practical, cost effective short or long term solutions has become an arduous process. In fact, a plethora of pitfalls has stymied these arms control related clean-up programs to the level that very little progress is accomplished.

These pitfalls are representative of many cooperative threat reduction and environmental security programs between the CIS and Western countries. The following examples are only the more general and visible - standard - impediments to arms control related environmental clean-up programs. The solutions presented below are summaries of the knowledge and understanding acquired by program officers that work on arms control related environmental security issues in Russia.

  1. Impediment: Often funds allocated for clean-up or research programs do not reach their destination. This is the result of a Russian bureaucracy that lets the funds "trickle down" to its destination. Each institution that handles the funds within Russia takes "of the top" processing fees that often exceed 20% of the original fund. If several "transmitters" are switched before the designated recipient, very little is often left to execute the task.
    • Solution: Funding for programs should be given directly to the source. This avoids processing fees and generates the desired deliverable.
    • The Problem: Funding for arms control related environmental clean-up programs in Russia is scarce and hard to establish. Over the past couple of years, the perception based problem of "real" and "perceived funds" has become a significant problem. Miscommunication evoked by translation or cultural or semantic gaps triggering false expectation sets, misunderstandings of the working of the other bureaucratic system, false expectations about what the other is authorized to decide and discuss, and finally "false representation" as a bargaining tactic - all these elements have significantly contributed to accelerating mistrust on both sides of the bargaining tables of different cooperative programs. This is particularly the case in some multilateral efforts where the Russian side perceived that the agreed-upon projects would be backed by financial resources, and the funds never materialized. As a consequence many Russian military officers question why they should provide their former foes with access to some of their most sensitive military sites. Suspicions also arise in many of these officers that such access concession could be a ticket for intelligence gathering purposes.

    On the Western side similar, yet different, reactions have resulted in comparable frustrations about the Russian side. Such frustrations are expressed by "they never follow through", "they always change their previous position, and nothing is constant", "they do not want to address the real issues, so why should I fund something that is of secondary concern to our security interest, or is not technically feasible ?" Furthermore, it is often not clear for Western experts which of the Russian ministries is authorized to decide on respective issues. The ever lasting battles over decision authority between the Ministry of Energy (MINATOM), the Ministry of Defense (MoD), the Russian Navy and regional authorities provides for any Western expert the confusion of a Kafkaesk labyrinth.

    Solutions: Solutions to the above mentioned impediments to environmental security cooperation can only be, and must be, established on a high intergovernmental level. Authoritative capacities on the operational level are too limited to overcome such hurdles. In the meantime, the only recipe to the success of any operation is to manage expectations carefully.

  1. Impediment: The still existent inter-military distrust aggravates tensions, fosters suspicions and escalates smaller issues (such as under 2) into large contentions that can halt progress of any program for some time. In the Murmansk case, negotiating teams on the Russian side consist often of regional nuclear submarine fleet commanders. These are front line officers that think in a traditional political fashion leaving very little wiggle room and willingness to negotiate beyond what they have been authorized to do, and what they perceive as the true world. Similarly on the Western side, mid-level military dominates the scene with often little operational knowledge. Furthermore, many of the Western participants enter the discussion with the somewhat antagonizing attitude of "We are here to help you clean up your mess, we know better, and you better submit to our demands..." ( I have recently heard a Russian refer to this as the "John Wayne attitude".) This entire dynamic gets exacerbated by Cold War "Victor" and "Looser" roles that triggers all different types of reactions and impacts on negotiations that I do not want to discuss here. Another significant problem develops if the negotiating teams consist of a different mix of ranks. If the one side does not send officers of equal rank, the other may perceive intentions as "not serious" thereby jeopardizing the negotiations.
  • Solutions: The negotiating teams should always consist of the same officer ranks to assure the other side that the intentions are serious. Negotiations and demands should not venture beyond the agenda that was agreed upon before the meeting in order to avoid unnecessary suspicions and confusion. Western negotiating team members should be particularly sensitive to the security concerns and personal sentiments of their Russian counterparts. We need to remember that arms control related environmental risk mitigation is also in the interest of the West.
  1. Impediment: A significant impediment to the progress of arms control environmental security management programs is the Western fear to inadvertently upgrade Russian nuclear strategic capabilities. This Western concern is, no doubt, justified. For example, expanding and upgrading the storage facilities for nuclear submarine wastes, or developing and implementing sorbent technologies for high salinity liquid radioactive waste from Russian nuclear submarines will certainly improve the operational capabilities of the Russian submarine fleet.
  • Solution: Decisionmakers have to weigh their choices between the benefits of securing environmental safety at the risk of creating marginal upgrades to the operational capabilities of the Russian nuclear submarine fleet. Unfortunately, the diverse domestic political impacts of a pro-environment choice may be unpopular with many policymakers even today.
  • Problem: A significant, yet unexpected, problem is the multitude of overlapping international environmental clean-up assistance programs that are funded from different countries. For example, in North West Russia the following military nuclear submarine waste management assistance programs address the same or significantly overlapping issues:
  1. the European Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States TACIS Program;
  2. various nationally funded Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian programs;
  3. the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Murmansk Initiative
  4. the United States Defense Special Weapons Agency’s Severodvinsk LRW project;
  5. the trilateral Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) program;
  6. various industry, private public partnership programs
  7. others.

The effect is that funds are spend in an uncoordinated fashion, limiting the effectiveness of clean-up efforts. Furthermore, such multitude limits the ability to negotiate specific terms in the various cooperative efforts. In fact, on several occasions, inter-agency competition within one of the countries that provide assistance, has significantly damaged the success of a program.

Furthermore, other similarly significant technical and legal issues exist that have hampered the implementation of arms control related environmental security programs in Russia. They include among others:

  • disagreements on technology implementation for environmental remediation and waste management;
  • absence of consistent short and long term arms control related waste management strategies and objectives;
  • inconsistent and costly application of various waste management technologies due to the presence of multiple uncoordinated programs;
  • technology application without sufficient source-term knowledge and prior technology intercalibration;
  • frequent absence of identified intellectual property rights of Russian technologies;
  • disagreements on how to solve intellectual property rights of Western technology holders if a technology is integrated for waste management purposes;
  • Russian taxation of Western technologies that are imported for the sole purpose of providing waste management technological capability.

Arms control related environmental clean-up efforts require coordination among the clean-up stakeholders to secure a cohesive and focused approach. Agreement to coordinate has to be created on the highest governmental levels of assistance-providing countries to maximize the impact and benefits of the efforts. Such coordination will significantly reduce costs by avoiding overlapping investments, duplication of research and organizational cost. It will also provide the political consistency and stability that is essential to successfully address such sensitive issue areas as nuclear submarine decommissioning and nuclear waste clean-up. Above described experiences apply to almost all post arms control, cooperative threat reduction related programs between the Western countries and Russia.

In the future, arms control negotiations will need to incorporate the above experience of the most recent years in order to structure arms reductions in a safe, economically efficient and environmentally more friendly fashion. Arms control can only then be called successful if the weapons-grade material is safely stored or disposed, the weapons platforms are decommissioned and remediated, former employees of the nuclear industrial complex have found new employment and the former weapons storage and production sites are cleaned up.

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