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In the north-western corner of Russia, next to Finland and Norway, an easily recognizable chunk of land can be seen sticking out into the sea. This is the Kola peninsula, measuring 140 000 square kilometers, bordered by the Barents Sea in the north, the White Sea in the east, and the Kandalaksha Gulf in the south. A lake and river system stretching north all the way to the Kola Inlet further separates it from Russia.

Most of the Kola Peninsula lies north of the Arctic Circle, just like Greenland. Unlike the rather un-green and icy island, however, the peninsula has a relatively temperate climate - the average temperature in the area is a sweating -2° Celsius. Dizzy heights of 30° can be reached in summer, but then, winter temperatures tend to retaliate with 30 chilling negative degrees. Ocean currents from warmer climates and thousands of temperature-preserving lakes give the peninsula a surface of tundra instead of ice. It takes advantage of this to host the northernmost Botanical Garden in the world.

Koloskij Poluostrov, as the Russians call it, is occupied mostly by mountains and tundra, but also has quite a large number of people for such a northern location -- about a million. The Czar's claim for an ice-free port led to the foundation of Murmansk, and later Bolshevik wishes to develop industry everywhere, made it the most densely populated area of the Arctic, as well as the most polluted one. For many years, Soviet industrial enterprises released heavy pollutants through rivers into the Arctic Sea unchecked. These days, steps have been taken to monitor and protect the environment.

The Khibiny and Lovozero mountains rise in the heart of the peninsula. Consisting mainly of high plateaus, their highest point can be found 1191 metres above sea level on Mount Tchasnotchor. The result of mineralogically rich agpaitic alkali intrusions, the local rocks can provide over three hundred species of mineral. Modern and ancient times have marked the mountains. Shaped by the Ice Age glaciers, they offer deep valleys and granite outcroups reminiscent of a Moon landscape. Indeed, Lunohod-1 was tested here before going abroad to roam the moon surface. In less flighty operations, mining is gnawing out morsels of the mountain, offering a livelihood for a great number of people here.

The southern part of Kola, called Taigan, is calmer than the north. It consists of forest and marshland, slow rivers such as the sedate Umba, and a great wealth of animal life. The Kola peninsula is a relatively unknown paradise for tourists who wish to ski, fish or admire the view without the company of other tourists. The dark days which keep people from skiing in the winter months enables them to enjoy long summer nights of midnight sun instead. With 110 000 lakes and 20 000 rivers and streams, there should be enough activity to occupy the most avid fisherman through those nights. He can try to collect all 29 varieties of fish to be found here, or at least an Atlantic salmon, a trout, a char and a grayling. Overhead white grouse and majestic sea-eagles soar to enjoy the still untamed peninsula of the north.

The Kola peninsula is also home to the ex-Soviet (now Russian) Northern Fleet. This, the largest unit of the Russian navy, at its height during the Cold War was home base for most of the nuclear vessels in the Soviet service. Bases were located at:

One unfortunate consequence of this is that the peninsula is now also home to what is probably the world's largest and most dangerous collection of nuclear waste. The Scandinavian environmental group Bellona has issued several warning reports on the dismal state of safety systems and containment at the myriad dedicated and impromptu nuclear waste storage sites on the peninsula, with the intent of attracting Western funding to help renovate them.

Some of the more egregious examples include an above-ground waste dump which is so radioactive that a half-mile limit around it is enforced. There is a fuel rod storage facility whose underwater manipulators broke in the mid-1990s, and since that time the rods have lain on the floor of the vessel, not in their shielded sleeves, contaminating the entire site. There are above-ground storage 'mausoleums' which are visibly corroded and leaking material.

All of this is worsened by the naval problem. Since the USSR and now Russia lacked the funds to properly dispose of decommissioned nuclear submarines, the practice has been to cut the 'reactor room' section away from the submarine ends, and leave it sealed but floating, 'docked' at pier. There are little if any security measures in place. Some docks contain upwards of a dozen of these radioactive sections, still waiting to be cleaned up or to sink.

The Kola peninsula also saw some of the worst disasters of the Soviet navy; in the mid-1980s, a series of explosions tore through a naval armory in Severomorsk, destroying (it is estimated) around 50% of the North Fleet's stock of SAMs and other missile ammunition.

vuo informs me that the name Kola is actually from the Finnish Kuola, which means "death" or "drool" - a tad macabre considering the contamination issue.

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