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Human-caused disasters

With the exception of Finland, all the countries bordering the Arctic area have oil terminals, or major transportation routes of oil or hazardous materials in their Arctic areas. Other human activities include the exploitation of petroleum and mineral resources by all countries except Finland and Sweden. Iceland has a hazardous materials waste site, and the Russian Federation has several nuclear sites and radioactive waste sites in its Arctic area. An environmental risk survey of human activities in the Arctic, carried out under the auspices of the Arctic Council, concluded that the greatest threat from a release of a pollutant requiring emergency response is the transportation and storage of oil. Nuclear sites, although assessed as less of a threat overall, could affect much larger areas (EPPR 1997).

Pipeline ruptures and leakages, such as in the Usinsk area of Russia in 1994 when 116 million litres of crude oil were spilled (Oil Spill Intelligence Report 2002), and the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska in 1989 with almost 50 million litres of crude oil spilled (NOAA 2001), are examples of catastrophic environmental impacts in the region. Many smaller accidents, such as uncontrolled oil gushers and the accidental discharge of contaminated mud during drilling, also result in local environmental pollution (AMAP 1997).

Nuclear waste dumping sites: Arctic

Map shows dumping sites for solid and liquid radioactive wastes in Arctic areas of the Russian Federation

Source: AMAP 1997

Both past and current activities involving radioactive materials in the Arctic create a high potential risk of accidents, although there has been no large-scale radioactive pollution yet. For example, accidents such as the sinking of the Soviet nuclear submarine Komsomolets in 1989 and the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000, and the crash of a US aircraft with nuclear weapons aboard near Thule in Greenland in 1968, did not result in the release of radioactive substances to the environment.

The Soviet Union dumped high, intermediate and low level radioactive waste in the Kara and Barents Seas between 1959 and 1991 (see map), including six nuclear submarine reactors and a shielding assembly from an icebreaker reactor containing spent fuel (AMAP 1997). Since then, the research and data collected have indicated that no significant amounts of radioactive materials have migrated from the dumping, and only very local samples show elevated radionuclide levels. The major risks may be over the long term as the containers corrode.

Radioactive contamination from European reprocessing plants in the 1970s and atmospheric weapons testing in the 1960s have contributed to current low-level Arctic contamination (AMAP 1997, OTA 1995). There is limited data on how much or where radioactive materials have been dumped in the Arctic, and any of these sites may be 'a disaster waiting to happen' (AMAP 1997).

Governments, businesses and international organizations are all taking action to increase disaster preparedness in the region. Intergovernmental cooperation is carried out on both a bilateral and a multilateral basis, especially via the Arctic Council. Two of the Arctic Council's programmes - Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR), and Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) - have produced important information and guidelines on environmental risks in the Arctic. For example, EPPR developed the Arctic Offshore Oil and Gas Guidelines aimed at regulatory agencies in 1997. A guideline on the transfer of petroleum products from ship to shore and ship to ship has been produced by PAME (Arctic Council 2001). The IUCN and the Oil and Gas Producers Association have prepared guidelines for environmental protection in the Arctic and sub-Arctic (IUCN and E&P Forum 1993).