US congressional staff in a briefing last week considered approaches to continue cooperation with Russia on nuclear cleanup in the Arctic now that several key international agreements have deteriorated over the past few years.
Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s managing director and nuclear physicist was among those who laid out challenges to ongoing cooperation with Russia in addressing remaining Cold War legacy waste in the far north.
Bøhmer was joined by Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, a visiting fellow at Washington DC’s Center for Strategic in and International Studies (CSIS), and Julia Gourley, the Senior Arctic Official with the US Department of State. The briefing was arranged by the Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe’s US Helsinki Commission.
Of institutions that have managed to survive tectonic geopolitical shifts, the Arctic Council – a consortium of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States –offers the best hope for future cooperation in alleviating nuclear dangers at the top of the world, the participants said.
For almost two decades, though, the US’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) agreement and The multi-nation Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) program – a consortium of Russia, Norway, the US and the United Kingdom – played a major role in facilitating advances, Bøhmer and Rahbek-Clemmensen told the briefing.
Among them, said Bøhmer, were the dismantlement of 120 rusted out nuclear submarines that for years bobbed like time bombs near Murmansk. One thousand radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, long a radioactive hazard along Arctic shores, have been replaced with solar power.
Nuclear trash at the bottom of the sea
But sunken nuclear waste, scuttled nuclear reactors and two entire submerged submarines still remain a possible hazard to the Arctic’s delicate ecosystem. Of particular concern are the K-27 and K-159 nuclear submarines.
The K-27 was scuttled with all of its nuclear fuel on board in the shallows off the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, for years a site of Soviet nuclear tests. The K-159, a decommissioned submarine, sunk in the Barents Sea with all of its nuclear fuel on board in 2003 while under tow to dismantlement. Neither submarine is emitting any contamination at present.
But that could change, noted Bøhmer, if water breaches the reactor of the K-27. This could cause an uncontrolled thermal reaction and an explosion. Russia is seeking Norwegian assistance in raising the K-27 and the K-159.
Bøhmer said raising the submarines would eliminate 90 percent of the dangers of leakage from scuttled nuclear trash in the area of the Kara Sea. But the litter of sunken drums containing all manner of radioactive waste could cause local contamination if increased oil exploration in the area accidentally drills into them.
Fires aboard nuclear submarines at refueling points in the Arctic in recent years also spell trouble. So far, none of these accidents have led to nuclear contamination, but they have revealed careless shipyard practices that could have doleful consequences.
Onshore, there are risks to removing 23,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies from dismantled submarines that sit 50 kilometers from the Russian-Norwegian border at Russia’s Andreyeva Bay. The Kola Nuclear Power Plant is operating all of its reactors on operational extensions, and the Arctic ecosystem could be polluted should anything go wrong with the aging units, Bøhmer said.
Climate change and a buried US reactor
The State Department’s Gourly noted that climate change is having an impact in the Arctic, and that melting permafrost posed real health dangers. The melt has exposed local human and animal populations to anthrax, she told the briefing.
And receding ice has revealed still more dangers, said Bøhmer and the CSIS’s Rahbek-Clemmensen – namely a secret portable US nuclear reactor in Greenland. Bøhmer said the US military would have to deal with the reactor and its waste.
The CTR agreement disintegrated in early 2015 as Vladimir Putin’s administration recoiled from Western influence. The multi-nation AMEC program – a consortium of Russia, Norway, the US and the United Kingdom – unraveled in 2006.
The Arctic Council, meanwhile, has survived East-West diplomatic meltdowns over Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, and continues several successful and ongoing programs addressing pollution, nuclear and Cold War legacy issues, climate change, and oil and gas monitoring.
The participants in the briefing noted that the Arctic Council has managed to forward cooperative interests by addressing them as environmental issues, which is a more neutral topic than military exchanges.
Gourley noted that he Barents Euro-Arctic Council has been an effective forum for engaging Russia because of it’s focus on states with a direct Arctic border. But she also indicated that the Arctic Council remained Russia’s favorite place to address Arctic issues, including nuclear issues.
Bøhmer told the briefing that the Arctic Council offered sufficient means to member states to achieve agreements with Russia. He further noted that the military to military cooperation offered under AMEC and CTR was something worth trying to restore.
Bøhmer and the other participants in the briefing also highlighted Norway’s success at forwarding nuclear remediation projects in Russia against the backdrop of tensions over Ukraine.
Rahbek-Clemmensen likewise advocated an extensive separate program for nuclear waste governance in the framework of AMEC, especially because of uncertainties surrounding US –Russian relations in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections. Relations between the countries could thaw somewhat, but it’s impossible to tell at the moment.
To advance such partnerships for ongoing and future nuclear remediation projects, Bøhmer explaned that the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development maintained its nuclear window account.
This account has earmarked €150 million for nuclear cleanup in Russia, some of which has gone toward efforts at Andreyeva Bay.
At current, however, EBRD funding for Andreyeva Bay is falling short by about €700 million to €800 million. This will have to be made up by further contributions to the EBRD’s nuclear window program.