Shine a nuclear light

Russian polar automated nuclear lighthouses. Not, as it first appears to be, the result of a random sentence generator but instead, a real series of lighthouses running across Russia's northern coast.

The northern coast is largely deserted and almost entirely within the Arctic Circle, meaning night falls for a hundred days. It's inhospitable but absolutely vital to Russian shipping. The northern coast provides an essential shipping route for the vast country and as a result, needs to be as safe to navigate as possible. Today, with satellite navigation and GPS it's simply difficult, but at the height of the Cold War it was almost impossible.

Which is where the automated nuclear lighthouses come in. Hundreds of miles away from civilization it was essentially impossible to maintain a manned presence so the lighthouses were designed to measure the time and date, turn on when necessary and send radio messages to nearby ships warning them off the coast. Power for them was supplied by large scale Radioisotope Thermal Generators or RTGs. Electrical generators that get their power from radioactive decay, RTGs are sort of a diet nuclear power source, a lot of the power with very little of the pesky radioactive waste.

Which must be a comfort for the looters who've stripped many of the lighthouses down, including the radiation shielding. They survived some of the worst weather on the planet and, for a while, the fall of the Soviet Union but now they're just quiet, irradiated shells, monuments to a long gone age where nuclear power was the cutting edge of science and there was nothing we couldn't solve with some isotopes and a construction team. For a time, they were glorious, now they're just beautiful, rather dangerous relics. Russian polar nuclear lighthouses, we salute you. Just, from a safe distance...

This article contributed by Alasdair Stuart, of Hub magazine . For more information on this story, visit www.englishrussia.com .