North Slope mayor says nuclear waste plan is lunacy

Posted: Monday, January 29, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Arctic North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak thinks the idea of shipping nuclear waste across the top of the globe is another example of how the world takes liberties with the Arctic Ocean.

''I think it's a crazy idea,'' Ahmaogak said.

Russia and Japan are negotiating a deal to team up and deliver recycled nuclear waste from western Europe to Japan via the Northern Sea Route, which mostly skirts Russia, but also passes close to several countries as well as the Alaska coastline.

Ahmaogak is not swayed by assurances from Japan that the radioactive material won't be a threat in the event of an accident.

''We've already got a high incidence of cancer that we're trying to isolate right now,'' he said. ''We don't need any more contaminants.

Though news reports about the concept are just making the rounds, those who study the Arctic Ocean have heard about the possibility of such a plan for a couple of years. Lawson Brigham, retired U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker captain, heard of the concept in 1999 while attending the International Northern Sea Route Programme in Oslo, Norway.

This route is an extension of the former Soviet Union's Arctic transportation system.

''They're extremely capable mariners,'' Brigham told the Fairbanks News-Miner in a phone interview from his California home. ''(The Northern route) has been open since '91, so why wouldn't the Russians want this?''

The international environmental group Greenpeace has sent releases to members of the Alaska Congressional Delegation and the state's media outlets.

''It is difficult to say who is crazier: those who propose such a scheme or those who would agree to it,'' Greenpeace International spokesman Tobias Muenchmeyer said in a release. ''Both must be mad. The last thing the fragile Arctic needs is more nuclear contamination.''

The Japanese Kyodo news service reported that the country's nuclear industry began negotiations with the Russian government after opposition against shipping the waste along the major routes in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The irradiated fuel is reprocessed at plants in France and Britain, then shipped to Japan.

The resulting glasslike material is highly radioactive. Proponents say when properly shielded it does not offer much harm to the surrounding environment.

Kyodo reported that a test shipment will be conducted this year and that the first full nuclear transport is scheduled for 2002. Japan relies almost exclusively on nuclear power. The reprocessed fuel will power as many as 18 Japanese reactors by 2010.

The Arctic has been a logical route to the Japanese for more than a decade. In 1987, they wanted to fly nuclear fuel over the pole from Europe, using Alaska as a potential landing zone in case of emergency. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, fought the concept and got it banned.

Murkowski said he wasn't yet concerned about the proposed shipments.

''So far we have yet to see any sign of activity moving through that sea route,'' Murkowski said, referring to nuclear shipments.

It would be difficult to stop such shipments even if Alaska or the U.S. did have objections, he said. Beyond three miles, it's open ocean where ships from any country have freedom to sail.

Murkowski, who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, isn't concerned about potential disasters in the Arctic. The glassified material is inert and its radiation won't spread if submerged in the ocean, according to information from Murkowski's aides.

Those kinds of reassurances don't do much for people like Ahmaogak. The Arctic Ocean is vital to the Native subsistence lifestyle. In the past half century, he said North Slope residents have watched their environment change due to global warming.

The sea ice, a launching platform for hunters, is disappearing.

''It's changed a lot,'' Ahmaogak said. ''The ocean current has changed. We're seeing species we've never seen before. We're seeing porpoises, Greenland sharks, silver salmon, king salmon. We've never seen these things before.''



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