Links between nuclear security and climate change demonstrated by wildfires in Russia
by Rob van Riet*
A concern that has been growing in my mind for some time is how nuclear security fits into this increasingly unstable picture (all three abovementioned countries have nuclear arsenals).
The wildfires that have been besieging Russia for over two weeks now have deepened this worry. With western and central parts of Russia suffering the worst heat wave since records began 130 years ago, wildfires have been ravaging the countryside. They have destroyed more than a third of cultivable land, claimed over 50 lives, clouded Moscow in smoke and damaged several military sites. Another threat surfaced last week when blazes were on their way to engulfing key nuclear sites.
The head of Russia’s federal atomic energy agency, Sergei Kirienko, confirmed that “material was moved from a nuclear research facility in Sarov in Nizhny Novgorod, about 310 miles east of Moscow, as fires approached, removing any threat of explosions at the center.” Several soldiers mobilized to fight the wildfires near the major nuclear research center were killed in the blaze.
On state television, Russia’s Emergencies Minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, warned that in the event of a fire in the Bryansk region on the border with the Ukraine, radionuclides from land contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster “could rise together with combustion particles, resulting in a new pollution zone.”
This is not the first time a natural disaster has caused nuclear security concerns. As a Newsweek article revealed in April, a team dispatched by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was in Chile gathering up dangerous nuclear stock while the earthquake of February 27th hit. Although several heart-stopping moments ensued, due to the professionalism of the team, they managed to avert disaster (only twelve hours before the earthquake had the NNSA engineers secured the irradiated uranium by fitting protective impact limiters on it and placing it in an airtight cask). Next time, however, the responsible parties might not be so prudent and competent, or nature might not wait.
Although nuclear concerns are not often linked to discussions on climate change, as the wildfires in Russia and the earthquake in Chile demonstrate, they should be factored in. These events confirm what many intuitively already feel: environmental degradation and extreme weather events –whether man-caused or not– can be a severe threat to nuclear security. Conversely, nuclear material has the ability to upscale any natural disaster to an unimaginable new level of destruction and deleteriousness.
Of course not all extreme weather events or environmental disasters cause nuclear security risks. Yet we cannot afford to wait for a natural disaster to ‘go nuclear’. In a world with an increasingly unpredictable environment, nuclear facilities, weapons and materials represent a highly volatile variable in an already unstable equation. It would surely be wiser to remove this nuclear variable altogether.
 ‘Wildfires Ravaging Swaths of Russia’, New York Times, August 6th 2010.
 ‘Bomb chasers. Inside a top-secret program to keep nuclear material from getting into the hands of terrorists’, Newsweek, April 19th 2010.
*Rob van Riet is coordinator of the World Future Council's disarmament programme. He is based in London.