Get Out The Geigor Counters

What Georgy Kaurov used to drink was vodka--with a powerful kick. That was back in the 1960s and '70s when he worked as a radiation specialist on Novaya Zemlya, Russia's testing site for nuclear bombs. Kaurov and a colleague would leave a shot glass of vodka on the tundra, just above the spot where a nuclear bomb was about to explode underground. Miraculously, though the earth would literally rise in the air and drop again after the ka-boom, the vodka glass would remain upright. The first guy to rush back to measure any leaks of radiation also got to chug the vodka. "Nah, it wasn't dangerous," says Kaurov, now the public-relations director of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, who recently brought a group of foreign journalists to Novaya Zemlya for the first time. "Radioactivity is a natural phenomenon."

Not everyone shares Kaurov's cool attitude. Maybe that's because the former Soviet Union is sitting on the biggest pile of radioactive waste anywhere in the world (see map). The 1986 Chernobyl explosion drew world attention to the rickety condition of the country's 37 nuclear power plants. But that's only a fraction of the problem. Although Russia has agreed to an accelerated schedule for dismantling its giant nuclear arsenal, no one seems to know what to do with the leftover radioactive fuel. Secret cities once devoted to building nuclear bombs are now vying for contracts to take them apart, but they lack money, know-how and political direction. Washington, of course, is eager to help fund such programs. But with nuclear weapons, storage sites and dumps now spread across all republics, keeping a handle on radioactive materials seems beyond the scope of any single effort. "The situation in this country is very vulnerable," says Vladimir Iakimets, scientific adviser to the antinuclear movement, Nevada-Semipalatinsk. "Without control over fissionable material, you could have a catastrophe."

The former U.S.S.R. has already had its share of disasters. Mayak, a plutonium-production complex near Chelyabinsk, has spewed out 2 1/2 times as much radiation as Chernobyl. Waste from a container explosion there in 1967 poured into a nearby lake; scientists estimate that standing for 10 minutes on its ghastly shore will kill you. Thirteen nuclear reactors of the fatal Chernobyl-style design are still chugging away around the former Soviet Union, as are 24 pressurized water reactors, many with cracked and leaky steam generators. Around the shores of Novaya Zemlya, 15 reactors from defunct nuclear-powered submarines have been dumped on the ocean floor, together with as many as 17,000 containers of radioactive waste. According to Andrei Zolotkov, who helped sink a nuclear icebreaker off Novaya Zemlya, the Soviet Navy had trouble getting some of the hermetically sealed containers to sink. The solution? Shoot holes in them. It might defeat the purpose of the hermetic seal-but it did make them sink.

As cavalier as the Russian attitude toward radiation seems, the Russians are the best-trained nuclear professionals in the former Soviet Union. The radioactive dumps and nuclear power plants scattered across the republics have fewer trained specialists to monitor them. Many of these republics now face an energy crunch, and some are cranking up unsafe nuclear power plants that were shut down in the first rush of anti-Moscow nationalism. And some republics may have access to even higher-grade nuclear fuel. Nuclear experts worry that a fast breeder reactor in Kazakhstan may produce as many as 440 pounds of plutonium per year. "In Russia there's at least some structure for control," says William Potter of the Monterey Institute for International Studies. In the other republics, "they just don't have the administrative capabilities to deal with such things."

Hopes shouldn't get too high about the Russians, either. According to an astonishingly naive government decree earlier this year, all radiated sites in Russia should be cleaned up by 1995. Leonid Dmitrakov of GeoEko Tsentr, a government agency, insists that it can be done. He says his engineers have already cleaned up virtually all the hot spots that appeared on a radiation map of Moscow last year; of 640 radiated areas, he says, only nine are left. Even if that's true, greater dangers remain. So far no one has figured out how to get the radioactive containers off the sea floor around Novaya Zemlya and bury them somewhere safer, or at least recap them underwater somehow. "Those containers will last for another hundred years," says nuclear physicist Kaurov. Then what will happen? "In a hundred years, people will be smarter than we are. They'll figure out what to do."

The thought of zillions of curies of radiation washing across the northern seas has made the Scandinavians frantic. (Some scientists warn that Alaska could be endangered, too.) The Finns are installing alarm systems on nuclear power plants in northern Russia, including one outside St. Petersburg (a Chernobyl-style reactor) that leaked radiation last spring. The King of Sweden last week gave the Lithuanians $1.5 million to clean up a nuclear power plant at Ignalina, which also malfunctioned a few weeks ago. The nervous Norwegians have been allowed to measure radiation on Novaya Zemlya itself, but not the waters around it. Kaurov insists that prevailing winds will blow any radiation leaks over northern Russia, not Scandinavia. That's small consolation to the Nenets people of the Russian tundra, nomadic herders who have a very high stomach-cancer rate, possibly from eating irradiated reindeer.

The U.S. government is scared, too. Congress has approved $800 million in aid for everything from building plutonium-storage facilities to donating special blankets to protect missiles during transport so they don't accidentally blow up. Russian scientists are beginning to sniff money in the air. According to the weekly Moscow News, nuclear specialists from Mayak recently turned in a proposal for cleaning up their irradiated lake and its environs, with a price tag of about $1.8 billion. The giant bill was broken down into a total of two parts: "capital investment" and "construction and assembly." For a government as impecunious as Moscow's, these sums are simply unthinkable. Cleaning up this horrifying mess will take more money, time and brains than fighting the cold war did. And the Russians lost the cold war.