Nuclear Regionalism in the Russian Far East

Cristina Chuen
April 5, 2002

Cut off from Russia’s political and economic center by distance, many of the subregions in Russia’s Far Eastern district have strong local politicians and influential businessmen as well as powerful criminal groups. While the entire district has many difficulties in common — in particular energy and supply problems and high crime rates — the way in which each area deals with them varies widely. Without an understanding of each region, it is impossible to know how local actors affect nearby nuclear installations or how they might cooperate with or hinder assistance programs. Local influence, however varied, is strong throughout the district.

Local Politics and Nuclear Facilities

The local political landscape has a great effect on interactions between nuclear installations and their host areas. Understanding a locality’s political type helps assistance providers recognize which local officials to approach in order for a project to succeed. There are two types of political patterns found in the Russian Far East: underinstitutionalized political competition and group-based authoritarianism. In relatively authoritarian areas, outsiders can deal with a single authority figure, usually the governor, and count on his authority to smooth out problems with subordinate officials. Failing to bring such governors into projects at the planning stage can result in project blockage: even Moscow can rarely force projects through in such cases. Where political competition is underinstitutionalized, outsiders cannot count on vertical lines of authority. Instead, project proponents should deal with politicians at different levels of local government as well as opposition figures.

Kamchatka, Primorye, and Amur are examples of underinstitutionalized political competition. These regions have been politically unstable for the past decade, with competing political groups unable to forge enough common ground to found stable local laws or other political institutions. Warring factions have used issues of environmental safety or foreign programs at local nuclear facilities as political fodder in their struggles. Local politicians periodically distort nuclear issues for political purposes, suggesting that foreign projects are intelligence-gathering operations (proposed submarine dismantlement in Kamchatka) or will lead to environmental contamination (liquid radioactive waste processing in Primorye). Installation security has been jeopardized by electricity black-outs, at times as part of local attempts to blackmail Moscow into sending subsidies to the area (Primorye in the mid-1990s).

The safety and security of nuclear installations in the region, however, require that assistance projects move forward. Despite the ever-shifting political and legal sands, success is possible if approached with care. Projects at sites relatively far from population centers (like upgrades at Primorye’s Shkotovo Peninsula fresh and spent nuclear fuel storage sites), and those that provide enough financial benefits to satisfy all sides of the political spectrum (like SSBN dismantlement) are more likely to avoid political pitfalls. Endeavors that may have environmental consequences in cities are the most likely to face protracted political and legal hurdles. However, projects that improve nuclear safety can enlist environmentalists to promote them. Kamchatka, in particular, is threatened by decommissioned attack and cruise missile submarines that are sinking at their piers. Local environmentalists have indicated that they would welcome foreign dismantlement assistance, as long as it did not further endanger the environment. Foreign states should help scrap these vessels, increasing regional safety and nuclear security.

Without information, local environmental groups and local officials are more likely to obstruct projects and put out false information. The construction the Landysh floating liquid radioactive waste (LRW) filtration facility in Primorye was drawn out for eight years; proponents had to deal with a local citizenry that feared the project (93.6% of local residents voted against Landysh in a June 1997 referendum). Local media published few project details during the project’s early years, while international media instead focused on the dangers of LRW. In this case, better use of the media and incentives for locals to lobby for, not against, the project could have made a great difference in time and money. Foreign project supporters must make certain that local media have access to information: interviews with Vladivostok papers are unlikely to be read in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, 2250 km away.

Local political competition can bring opportunities. Construction of a floating nuclear power plant for Vilyuchinsk, Kamchatka, has begun. While Governor Mashkovtsev has signed off on the project, and the Vilyuchinsk mayor is a supporter, other local politicians are against the project. Foreign nations should support these officials and environmentalists in their fight against floating reactors. While the first plant, which uses highly enriched uranium, will be at a well-guarded site, Minatom is considering far-flung locations, where they cannot be as well protected, for future reactors. One such location is Provideniya, just 100 km from Alaska. Minatom plans to market these floating plants abroad, and has promoted them to Indonesia as desalination plants. Foreign objections should be voiced sooner rather than later, so that Russia is forced to deal with the possibility that these plants could be targeted by terrorists.

In Khabarovsk, politics have been relatively stable over the past eight years. An example of group-based authoritarianism, Governor Ishayev and local industrialists face little competition and have near-total control over the regional media. Ishayev has a great deal of clout in Moscow, while federal authorities cannot get things done in Khabarovsk without his support. For instance, he has blocked the construction of a nuclear power plant in his territory, and even the powerful Ministry of Atomic Energy is unable to pursue such plans without his backing. On the negative side, he pushes military exports from local factories, and has promoted the interests of the Amurskiy Shipyard, where there are two nuclear submarines under construction, even when risky military exports are involved. India will soon be paying to complete construction on one of these submarines, which Russia plans to lease to India. The status of the second submarine is unclear; shipyard personnel assume they will again build nuclear submarines in the future. Ishayev’s strong influence means that dealing with the region is relatively simple: Ishayev and his backers must be convinced to support a project before planning goes ahead. In this case, foreign nations should make it in his interest to support the total conversion of Amurskiy.

Like Ishayev, Chukotka’s Governer Abramovich is the unquestioned leader of his district. One of Russia’s financial oligarchs, Abramovich, who has close ties to Minatom, has been influential in the postponement of plans to build a floating nuclear power plant in Pevek. However, he has not made any commitment regarding the nuclear power plant in Bilibino, completed in 1976. Last September, Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal Okrug Konstantin Pulikovskiy said that closing the NPP is a “road to nowhere” and that the government should concentrate on increasing plant profitability. US officials should inform Abramovich about their safety concerns, and persuade him to close the plant.

In either political situation, local leaders must be enlisted as project advocates. They can help decrease political roadblocks in the region as well as in Moscow. For instance, local city and regional government politicians lobbied Moscow together with the Zvezda Shipyard director in support of the CTR submarine dismantlement program at the START-designated SSBN dismantlement facility.

Local Economies and Regional Facilities

Even though military installations are subordinate to the federal government, and officially receive most of their funds from Moscow, many are in fact dependent on regional economies for their well being. Service personnel do not receive sufficient pay to survive in the Far East, which has the highest cost of living in the country. Thus, the availability of second jobs as well as the food and other assistance provided by regional “sponsors” are critical to mitigating base difficulties. There is a climate of violence and desperation facing regional servicemen that can affect nuclear security. Men are so wretched that local naval facilities are plagued by suicide epidemics: in June 2000 three men killed themselves within a week. Another pair killed themselves in November 2001. More typically, sailors, including those guarding nuclear sites, try to make ends meet through theft. In March 2000 five sailors assigned to a unit that guards decommissioned submarines (who were earning about $25 a month) died attempting to steal metal from a partially dismantled Yankee-class submarine in Primorye. Last September, the director of the Zvezda Shipyard, where SSBNs are dismantled, was murdered by his stepson, in a case that may have been precipitated by disputes over the stepson’s involvement in sales of metal stolen from the facility.

In addition to the negative impact on human resources, regional economic weakness threatens the bases’ physical plant. The high level of debts to electricity companies in the Russian Far East periodically leads the companies to cut power to military installations. In January 2002 the Kamchatka energy provider blacked out an important Space Forces tracking station; the same month the Primorskiy Kray power provider cut off electricity to the Pacific Fleet power grid. On that occasion ships and docking facilities were reportedly not affected. But past outages have included Pacific Fleet docking equipment, arsenals and storage facilities, and Khabarovskenergo has cut off military airports, all in contravention of federal legislation. Such outages would be unlikely, despite high levels of Defense Ministry debt, were other consumers not bankrupting power providers. Assistance projects must take into account the possibility of power outages and other supply shortages. If projects are to be sustainable, provisions for continued personnel training must also be made, and resources — foreign or Russian — that will be used to pay salaries must be clearly identified. In the Far East, these salaries must be based on the local cost of living, not the national scale.

Regional Crime and Nuclear Installations

Organized crime reaches into nuclear facilities. Kamchatka criminal organizations have been discovered handing out small cards to new Rybachiy Naval Base recruits detailing the location and value of various submarine parts. While criminal activity at naval bases currently focuses on the theft of precious metals, the market for this metal is largely foreign. Should a market for radioactive materials arise, smuggling routes would already be well-tested.

While the entire district suffers from high crime rates, the crime routes and criminal groups vary from locality to locality. Komsomolsk-na-Amure, home of the Amurskiy Shipyard, is the headquarters of one of the oldest and strongest mafia families in the region. Closing down nuclear production there is the simplest way to ensure that smugglers do not obtain sensitive materials there. Improving site protection is the other, more expensive, option.


  • Given the magnitude of the nuclear-related problems in the area, foreign policymakers should encourage Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal Okrug Pulikovskiy to develop a special administrative division to deal with nuclear issues. This division could sponsor regular meetings with Pacific Fleet and local Minatom (DalRAO and Nuklid) officials and assist foreign aid donors in connecting with local officials and organizations. Viktor Cherkesov, the presidential representative to Northwest Russia, has created a similar division in his administration.
  • Nonproliferation training programs are virtually nonexistent in the region. But nonproliferation education and training in Khabarovsk Kray will not help improve the nonproliferation culture of nearby Amur Oblast. Assistance should be given so that personnel at each facility have access to continued nonproliferation training. Otherwise, no amount of upgrades can make sure materials are protected from the insider threat.
  • The dismantlement of nuclear-powered attack submarines should become an international priority. Failing to scrap old SSNs that are sinking into the sea increases the chance of an accident. Any such mishap, no matter the size, is likely to cause great political fallout, particularly on the local level, harming SSBN dismantlement and other cooperative projects. Newer nuclear-powered submarines might still be refitted or sold abroad, or sensitive materials stolen. It is safer to scrap these vessels while the option is still open.
  • The second submarine under construction in Komsomolsk should be dismantled before it is fueled. Foreign assistance for complete conversion of the plant should be offered before Russia decides to resume nuclear construction there.
  • Foreign states need to monitor the siting of floating nuclear plants in the Russian Far East as closely as possible. It is unclear how these plants will be transported to the district, and locals have questioned whether the floating plants will truly be towed back to central Russia for servicing. In addition, guarding the floating plants will be especially difficult in far-flung locations on Russia’s Pacific coast. Other nations should voice their concerns regarding these issues sooner rather than later.
 Nuclear Facilities in the Russian Far East

Nuclear Facilities in the Russian Far East

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