Enormous Dumps of Radioactive Waste Pose Nuclear Explosion Risk in Arctic Seas
October 6, 2012
The Bellona Foundation
Enormous quantities of decommissioned Russian nuclear reactors and radioactive waste were dumped into the Arctic Ocean over a course of decades including17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery, and the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel.
Russia Announces Enormous
Finds of Radioactive Waste and
Nuclear Reactors in Arctic Seas
Charles Diggers / The Bellona Foundation
(August 28, 2012) -- Enormous quantities of decommissioned Russian nuclear reactors and radioactive waste were dumped into the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia over a course of decades, according to documents given to Norwegian officials by Russian authorities and published in Norwegian media.
Bellona had received in 2011 a draft of a similar report prepared for Russia's Gossoviet, the State Council, for presentation at a meeting presided over by then-president Dmitry Medvedev on Russian environmental security.
The Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom confirmed the figures in February of this year during a seminar it jointly held with Bellona in Moscow.
Bellona is alarmed by the extent of the dumped Soviet waste, which is far greater than was previously known -- not only to Bellona, but also to the Russian authorities themselves.
The catalogue of waste dumped at sea by the Soviets, according to documents seen by Bellona, and which were today released by the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, includes some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery, and the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel.
Bellona's Two Decades on the Case
"Bellona has worked with this issue since 1992 when we first revealed the dangerous nuclear waste laying at the bottom of the Kara Sea," said Bellona President Frederic Hauge.
He acknowledged, however, that a precise accounting from the Russian side could hardly be expected given Russia's own ignorance of the extent of the dumped radioactive waste.
Hauge demanded that Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre take the issue up with his counterparts in the Russian foreign ministry as soon as possible.
"The Norwegian government talks a lot about oil and gas with the Russian government," said Hauge. "But this report shows that decommissioned nuclear reactors and radioactive waste must be much higher on the agenda when the two countries meet on an official level.
Per Strand of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority told Aftenposten that the information on the radioactive waste had come from the Russian authorities gradually.
"No one can guarantee that this outline we have received is complete," he said.
He added that Russia has set up a special commission to undertake the task of mapping the waste, the paper reported.
A Norwegian-Russian Expert Group will this week start an expedition in areas of the Kara Sea, which the report released by Russia says was used as a radioactive dump until the early 1990s.
The expedition will represent the first time Norway has participated in plumbing the depths of Russian waters for radiactive waste since 1994, said Aftenposten.
Making way for oil exploration
Bellona's Igor Kurdrik, an expert on Russian naval nuclear waste, said that, "We know that the Russians have an interest in oil exploration in this area. They therefore want to know were the radioactive waste is so they can clean it up before they beging oil recovery operations."
He cautiously praised the openness of the Russian report given to Norway and that Norway would be taking part in the waste charting expedition.
Bellona thinks that Russia has passed its report to Norway as a veiled cry for help, as the exent of the problem is far too great for Moscow to handle on its own.
The most crucial find missing
Kudrik said that one of the most critical pieces of information missing from the report released to the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority was the presence of the K-27 nuclear submarine, which was scuttled in 50 meters of water with its two reactors filled with spent nuclear fuel in in Stepovogo Bay in the Kara Sea in 1981.
Information that the reactors about the K-27 could reachieve criticality and explode was released at the Bellona-Rosatom seminar in February.
"This danger had previously been unknown, and is very important information. When they search and map these reactors, they must be the first priority," said Kudrik.
Researchers will now evaluate whether it is possible to raise the submarine, and attempt to determine if it is leaking radioactivity into the sea.
Bård Vegar Solhjell, Norway's Minster of the Environment sought in Aftenposten to play down dangers associated with the enormous Soviet-era nuclear dumping ground.
"I am concerned that people should not be unnecessarily disturbed by this -- we do not yet know if anything is seriously wrong," he said. He added that he was not aware of any risk of explosion aboard the sunken K-27.
Similar joint expeditions between Russia and Norway to map radioactive waste were undertaken in the waters east of Novaya Zemlya in 1992, 1993, and 1994. The expeditions aimed to establish the dangers posed by the dumped radioactive waste.
Novaya Zemlya was a nuclear weapons testing site during the Cold War. Russia has conducted a number of other expeditons to chart undersea sources of radiactive pollution since 1994, but without Norwegian assistance, said Aftenposten.
Igor Kudrik contributed to this report.
Dumped Russian Nuclear Sub
Shows No Radioactive Leaks, but Still Presents
Chain Reaction Dangers, Research Says
(September 25, 2012) -- A group of 16 Russian and Norwegian researchers who sailed to take measurements surrounding a Russian nuclear submarine that was scuttled for nuclear waste off the coast of the former Soviet nuclear test archipelago Novaya Zemlya in the Kara Sea have found no radioactive leaks, Norwegian radiation authorities said today. Bellona, 25/09-2012
Per Strand, a director at the Norwegian Radiation Protection agency told Bellona, however, that the primary purpose of the expedition, which returned today, was to inspect the possibility of an uncontrolled chain reaction aboard the K-27 Russian nuclear submarine, which was sunk in 50 meters of water in Novaya Zemlya's Stepovogo Bay in the Kara Sea as nuclear waste in 1981.
"The Russian side indicated there might be a hypothetical possibility that spent nuclear fuel in the reactor in extreme situations could cause an uncontrolled chain reaction, which can lead to heat and radioactivity releases," Strand said in a telephone interview from Kirkeness.
The K-27, was dumped by the Soviet Navy in 1981, with spent nuclear fuel packed in its reactors, after a 1968 reactor leak aboard the killed nine sailors. The navy tried to repair it before deciding to seal the nuclear units and sinking the sub.
The researchers also examined some 2000 containers of various kinds of radioactive waste that were dumped in Stepovogo Bay, but found no increase in radiation since the site was last inspected in 1994. In fact, according to Hilde Elise Heldal, levels of cesium-137 are slightly lower than they were the last time they were measured 18 years ago, but are still higher than background radiation, she told the Barents Observer. "We measured less than 5 Becquerel per kilogram of Cesium-137 in the sediments near the submarine,"she said.
Authorities in Russia and their counterparts in Norway, which lies about 965 kilometers to the west of the sunken sub, need to make a decision about a safe disposal of the K-27, which was the top priority of the expedition, Strand said.
Strand said that the joint research team aboard the Ivan Petrov research vessel took sediment, plant and sea life samples.
They also used a mini submarine to take photos of the K-27's condition. Though emphasizing that all data collected is preliminary, Strand said it would "contribute to making decisions about whether the submarine needs to be lifted out of the water" for safer storage. No experts that could assess the feasibility of lifting the vessel were along on the expedition.
"For now, the first priority will be the development of environmental impact studies based on the information we have collected to judge the feasibility of lifting the submarine," he said.
Norway's number one focus for the moment, said Strand, will be developing an effective system of countermeasures should a chain reaction occur aboard the K-27. The dilema for salvage experts at the moment is weather lifing the submarine might not cause jostling, which also could trigger radiation leaks or a chain reaction.
Catalogue of Nuclear Waste in the Kara Sea
The joint expedition -- the first of its kind in 18 years -- was launched after Russian authorities gradually released in August to the NRPA a catalogue of nuclear waste dumped at sea by Soviet and Russian authorities over a period of decades ending in the early 1990s.
Included in the radioactive materials dumped into the Kara Sea were 19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery; 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, and the K-27 nuclear submarine.
But neither Strand nor Bellona's Igor Kudrik, an expert on Russian Naval nuclear waste issues, believe this is a complete accounting of the waste.
Indeed, acknowledged Bellona President Frederic Hauge, a precise accounting from the Russian side could hardly be expected given Russia's own ignorance of the extent of the dumped radioactive waste.
Expedition Underscores that Chain Reaction Threat is Real
That the expedition focused nearly exclusively on the integrity of the K-27 when there are so many other objects to check, underscores that the concern of a chain reaction aboard the scuttled submarine is very real, said Kudrik.
"The focus on K-27 shows that the concern for the possibility of chain reaction developing in the reactors of the submarine is well-founded," he said.
"The Russians dismantled several reactors with liquid metal coolant of the same type as those aboard the K-27 -- which were stored on shore -- and gained a knowledge that rang the alarm bells," said Kudrik, adding, "further steps should include analyses of the probability of such a worst case scenario, and an evaluation of whether it is possible to lift the submarine."
The K-27 was the only sub of its class ever produced by the Soviet Navy, and was powered by two lead and bismuth cooled reactoers, which solidified when the reactors were switched of. This presents special difficulties for removing the highly enriched uranium fuel within the, as the fuel rods are now apart of the metal of the reactor itself, which means they cannot be removed by conventional means.
The perceived advantage to liquid cooled reactors were that they reduced the size of the reactor unit that needed to be placed aboard the submarine.
Liquid metal cooled reactors later made their appearance in Soviet project 705 Alfa Class attack subs, the first of which was commisioned in 1971. The last of the seven Alfa Class subs was commissioned in 1981. All Alfas were takne out of service by 1990.
Russian Environmentalists Push
For Raising the K-27
Preeminent Russian environmentalists Alexei Yablokov, who published research on radioactive waste near Novaya Zemlya in 1992 as former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's chief environmental advisor, urged that the submarine be lifted Tuesday.
"K-27 is a dangerous object and there are plans to lift it from the sea bottom for proper disposal," Yablokov said in remarks to the Bloomberg news agency today. "Technically it's possible."
Financing from the French Commissariat for Atomic Energy to provide decommissioning equipment for the liquid metal cooled reactors about the Alfa subs -- the K-27s cousins -- was installed at the Gremikha former naval base on the eastern portion of the Kola Peninsula.
Last year, the last of the Alfa reactor cores was removed and taken away for storage, the Barent's Observer reported, opening the possibility that the French financed equipment could be used to removed theK-27s damaged core.
But anonymous sources at Gremikha warned that time is crucial as the reactor-core removal equipment is ageing, said the paper.
Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for the state run nuclear corporation Rosatom, which oversees Russia's nuclear industry, wasn't available to comment following calls to his office and mobile phones. Anatoly Zakharchev, the head of the submarine decommissioning unit at Rosatom, was also unavailable for immediate comment.
Effects to Oil Drilling in the Arctic
Preliminary analysis presented today suggested the enormous nuclear waste finds should not -- in their current condition -- impede Arctic oil exploration provided companies steer clear of the shallows surrounding Novaya Zemlya.
Norway's Statoil and Eni SpA of Italy have set up joint ventures with Russian oil giant Rosneft to explore in the Russian area of the Barents Sea, a larger body of water next to the Kara Sea, where the Soviet Union also dumped waste. The partners are targeting about 15 billion and 26 billion barrels of oil and gas resources respectively.
Statoil spokesman Bård Petersen told Bellona today in a telephone interview that," barring any new revelations regarding the radioactive sources, I do not think they will pose difficulties in the progress of our exploratory progress" with Rosneft. He did say, however, that Statoil would monitor the discoveries made by the joint Norwegian-Russian expedition.
Bellona's Kudrik said the financial responsibility for cleaning up the radioactive dump at the bottom of the Kara Sea rests with the Russian government. But he suggested big oil should assist in accelerating the process by lending its offshore expertise.
"Oil companies should make sure that the area is swiped clean of nuclear waste before they start any oil exploration activity," said Kurdrik. "In the worst-case scenario -- that is, an uncontrolled chain reaction in the reactors of K-27 -- radiation will spread in the Kara Sea and create major difficulties for any industrial activity."
When the NRPA last month received the extensive list of radioactive hazards litering the floor of the Kara Sea, many in Norway viewed the disclosures in the documents as a veiled cry from Russia for international aid.
In his remarks to Bellona, the NRPA's Strand did not rule out the possibility that Norway may again be called upon to provide financial assistance should research based on the results of the expedition show that lifting the K-27 is feasible. Norway has thus far invested some $200 million in Russian nuclear remediation projects.
Norwegian Foriegn Minister Torgeir Larsen two weeks ago told the Barents Observer that his ministry was open to providing Russian with "inter-survey and risk assements" associated with lifting the vessel, but consigned that responsibility to the Russian side.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.