I’m always slightly nervous to write about recent history — that is, events in living memory that are not in my own adult memory — because I’m almost guaranteed to miss the point. A person from that era (Vietnam War, say) might not know all the facts I dredge up but would have a much better tonal sense of the time, and my writing would never ring true for them. I wonder whether the generation before me tiptoed over World War II with the same trepidation.
That said, there are physical objects lying around from one such chapter of world history — the Cold War — that play an unanticipated role in todays events. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles languishing in silos in Kazakhstan find new life, repurposed to launch American satellites, their makers posthumously cooperative with the enemy.
A cross-polar missile strike was a strong possibility at the time, and a glance at a circumpolar map projection shows just how close the geographic connection is between the two – something that’s disguised in the traditional Mercator maps. Being strategically integral to the Cold War, the Arctic carries a lot of the physical legacy of it, and its remoteness has made for less of an impetus toward reclamation of those sites.
From Alaska to Baffin Island, a chain of 63 radar stations were manned to detect a launch across the Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile the Russian Kola Peninsula and Severodvinsk regions hosted a multitude of military installations. This is where the highest concentration of both active and derelict nuclear reactors in the world are thought to congregate. Around 115 reactors on active submarines and 101 on inactive ones, as well as four on military surface ships comprise a total of around 18% of the world’s total nuclear reactors.
I’m not against nuclear power, done well, but as the Arctic region becomes increasingly trafficked, economically viable and, in Russia’s case, remilitarized, the fate of this nuclear material is of some concern. As I mentioned in relation to oil spills, contamination is more damaging in the Arctic ecosystems, because they are far slower to recover, and the water and air circulation patterns would quickly make it everyone’s problem.
If the story of Russia’s polar lighthouses are anything to go on, indications are not good that the material is being effectively managed. To work for years without an external power supply, the unattended automatic lighthouses were equipped with Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, much like the ones that power Voyager space probes. In some ways, they are more dangerous than full fission reactors, because they remain more active even after they are cut open and spread around. This is exactly what has happened at many of the derelict lighthouses, where looters have disregarded warning signs to strip the facilities of copper wire and other precious commodities. Just as in other parts of the world we can expect this kind of amateur handling of nuclear materials – in this case Strontium-90 – eventually to have horrific consequences.
Images from a gorgeous photo essay of the Aniva lighthouse by kamatoz