August 24, 2000 - The legacy of radioactive military waste produced by the Russian Northern Fleet poses a great threat to the region surrounding the fleet's bases and dumping grounds in Northwest Russia and the Barents Sea, according to former Russian Navy submarine captain and environmental activist Alexandr Nikitin. Nikitin, now with the Bellona Foundation , a Norwegian environmental NGO, recently visited the Woodrow Wilson Center and spoke about the recent sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine as only the latest radioactive threat in the region. He pointed to the 110 Russian nuclear subs no longer in service, 72 of which still have fuel in their reactors. Thirty of those with fuel still on-board are in critical condition and in danger of sinking. As with the Kursk today, the threat stems from water breaking the hermetic seal around the reactors and radionuclides escaping into the surrounding environment.

For the past five years, Nikitin has been charged repeatedly with treason for passing state secrets during his preparation of the 1996 Bellona Foundation report The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination. Nikitin and his two Norwegian co-authors maintain all the information contained in the data-rich report came from open sources. Although his case has been thrown out by numerous Russian courts, including the Supreme Court, for lack of evidence, St. Petersburg prosecutors have recently attempted to reopen the case. Nikitin, who spent almost one year in prison awaiting his initial trial, is at risk once again.

Nikitin's legal troubles are indicative of increasing efforts by the Russian government to heighten secrecy and discourage those gathering environmental data in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that environmental groups provide convenient cover for Western intelligence agencies. Nikitin views his case not only as a violation of his individual rights, but as part of a systemic deprivation by the Russian government of the rights of the population to information and to seek redress for environmental catastrophes.

As environmental and human rights issues have grown intertwined in recent years in Russia, Nikitin has established the St. Petersburg Environmental Human Rights Center with support from Norwegian and Russian colleagues. Now in coalition with other groups throughout Russia, this Center seeks to advance the collection of environmental data and protect those who do so. The Center and the recently formed Environment and Human Rights Coalition provide advice to communities and individuals in need of legal representation stemming from environmental activities, gather and analyze environmental data throughout Russia's regions, and train other lawyers in the effective strategies developed in the course of the Nikitin case.

Other Projects at the Wilson Center working on these topics:
Kennan Institute for Advance Russian Studies
Cold War International History Project