Locals call it the Sacred Sea, Russians consider it a national treasure and the world has declared it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Siberia’s Lake Baikal is one of the world’s oldest, largest and deepest lakes. Its age and isolation have created one of the richest and most unusual collections of freshwater plants and animals on earth, including some 1,700 species unique to the lake, like the nerpa or Baikal seal.
Yet this wonder of nature is increasingly threatened by unregulated development and environmental pollution from a state-owned paper mill and the growing oil and nuclear economy.
In 2006, the Russian Government announced plans to build the world’s first International Uranium Enrichment Centre on the grounds of an existing nuclear facility in Angarsk, 95 kilometres from the lake’s shores. The centre would enrich uranium sent from countries which do not have nuclear infrastructure, and return it to them for reuse, at a premium price. The project, which is supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the US, is seen as a way to control uranium supply and deter rogue nations from pursuing nuclear power, and by turn, nuclear weapons.
But critics argue it would be a disaster for the region and are urging the Government to reconsider. After the uranium is enriched, only 10 per cent of the radioactive material would be returned to customers abroad, leaving 90 per cent in the Lake Baikal region for storage. This would make Russia the only country in the world willing to accept radioactive waste from other countries for processing, long-term storage and burial. Campaigners fear that by-products of processed uranium would endanger Lake Baikal and local communities. Uranium tailings, the leftover waste after the enrichment process, contain radioactive and toxic materials, which are extremely dangerous to human health and can contaminate rivers and lakes.
Over the years, many people and groups have fought to preserve Lake Baikal, but one of its most ardent and successful protectors is Marina Rikhvanova, 46, a soft-spoken biologist and Lake Baikal resident. She was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s biggest prize for environmental activists, on 14 April in San Francisco for her efforts to protect the lake. With Baikal Environmental Wave (the Wave), the non-governmental organization she co-founded to safeguard the lake, Rikhvanova campaigned to reroute the longest oil pipeline in the world – the Transneft Siberia-Pacific oil pipeline – away from the lake’s shores. Her four-year national campaign rallied thousands in protest, received support from international organizations and gathered 100,000 signatures – an amazing feat considering Russia’s increasingly repressive climate. In April 2006, President Vladimir Putin relented and ordered the pipeline to be rerouted away from the lake’s watershed. This marked a tremendous success for civil society and the environmental movement in Russia.
Now, despite extreme Government pressure, Rikhvanova and the Wave are mobilizing opposition to the uranium enrichment project. Rikhvanova laughs off the harassment she has suffered – including a raid on her office by Federal security agents when the Lake Baikal campaign was launched. ‘It was interesting,’ she said at the time. ‘The more they did things like that, the more reporters came to our press conferences!’