Russia’s sunken subs to lie where they are for another three years

The K-159 under tow before its sinking.
The K-159 under tow before its sinking.

Publish date: October 24, 2017

Written by: Charles Digges, Anna Kireeva

Russian officials have again raised the possibility of retrieving tons of nuclear trash from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean – only to confess just as quickly that they don’t have the money to do it.

Russian officials have again raised the possibility of retrieving tons of nuclear trash from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean – only to confess just as quickly that they don’t have the money to do it.

Discussions of what to do about thousands of containers of radioactive waste, nuclear reactors, pieces of irradiated debris, and two entire nuclear submarines languishing at the bottom of Russia’s northern seas come up a few times a year and are routinely abandoned just as quickly.

But they, nonetheless, raise interesting questions about what, precisely, is there, and about what kind of a minefield it creates for Russia’s Arctic oil drilling ambitions, to which the country has long hitched its economic future.

Between 1965 and 1972, Russia’s nuclear navy intentionally sank some 17,000 tons of solid radioactive waste, the K-27 nuclear submarine, 14 reactors from other submarines, 19 ships containing nuclear waste, and 735 pieces of heavily irradiated equipment from a variety of nuclear powered vessels, including the iconic nuclear icebreaker Lenin.

K-159 The condition of the K-27 submarine, which the Soviet Navy scuttled in the waters off Novaya Zemlya. Credit: IBRAE

And that doesn’t count what got there by mistake – which includes another submarine, the K-159 that went down in 2003 while being towed through heavy weather and which has been the subject of abortive retrieval discussions of its own.

The full scale of the carcinogenic cache of nuclear cast offs was revealed to Norwegian authorities in 2012, and it has been the subject of on-again-off-again Russian government attention ever since.

The most recent round of talks about all of this took place last week under the aegis of Russia’s government commission on Arctic development, which met last week at the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Oleg Kiknadze, with the Kurchatov Institute, warned of the potential dangers should the protective barriers surrounding the nuclear fuel on these submarines begin to deteriorate. He further lamented that a lack of data on these hazards doesn’t allow for an accurate prognosis of their possible contaminating effects on the ocean environment.

But Kiknadze zeroed in on the difficulties these radioactive wrecks could pose to potential oil drillers. Several of these dangers are clustered in the central part of the Kara Sea, only a few kilometers from where speculators have concentrated their most recent efforts.

k-159 The K-159 under tow. Credit: Bellona

Kiknadze urged to those gathered that such speculation include some sort of a budget for the continued monitoring of sunken radioactive waste. He even noted that a joint expedition undertaken by the Kurchatov Institute and the Russian Academy of Sciences Oceanology Institute last fall had revealed yet more waterlogged solid radioactive waste near the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago between the Barents and Kara Seas.

He then detailed that the Kurchatov Institute has come up with a number of scenarios to monitor conditions aboard the K-27 and the K-159 submarines, as well as other nuclear debris, to determine what should be done with them.

But then he lowered the boom: There’s absolutely no state funded budget planned to do that until after 2020, meaning it will all remain without oversight for another three years. In the meantime, he said, the institute would have to come up with “alternative” means of funding to keep tabs on the irradiated undersea pulse.

Kiknadze and others at the conference said one way of financing monitoring and retrieval would be to connect the rusted wrecks with owners. Doing so, they said, would allow researchers to isolate acute threats that should be raised, and to determine what can be left to lie.

Sergei Donskoi, Russia’s natural resources minister, was surprised that discerning ownership for largely military waste posed such a problem, and said as much.

k-159 sediment Researchers dredge sediment samples from around the K-159. Credit: Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority

But this is where the bureaucratic paper trail grows cold. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the following reshuffles within Russia’s ministries of nuclear energy and defense, a majority of the radioactive waste can’t be traced to a specific governmental department. The sunken submarines were likewise decommissioned and stricken from the Navy’s rolls – and are officially ownerless and orphaned.

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, who was present for the discussions, said the issue of raising the submarines is the most pressing. He warned that the window for dealing specifically with the K-27, sunk in the shallows off Novaya Zemlya, was drawing quickly to a close. The Gremikha naval installation near Arkhangelsk will soon be shut off from further naval waste, thus eliminating any infrastructure to dismantle the wreck.

“Many, including the ministers gathered here, are surprised that it is hard to attach an owner to these sunken vessels – which is a complicated problem because the owners are responsible for their fate,” Nikitin said, addressing the gathering. “But its hard to find those wishing to take on this responsibility – for instance state nuclear corporation Rosatom is happy to dismantle raised objects, but only after they are raised.”

The situation with the K-27, however, continues to grow dire. Before the navy sunk it in 1981, it filled the submarine’s liquid metal-cooled reactors, which contain 90 kilograms of uranium, with a special insulation. Over the last few years, however, it has been discovered that that insulation is deteriorating – raising the specter that water intruding into the reactor could cause an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.

None of that, however, should obscure the urgency with which the question of the sunken nuclear submarines was discussed three years ago.

At that time, Bellona concluded that there was a lack of unified opinion about whether they should be raised, or whether they should be left where they are, and fortified to prevent further radioactive leaks.

If last week’s talks at the natural resources ministry showed anything, it’s that even if there was an opinion about what to do with the subs, there’s no money to do it. The saving grace is that officials are sure to discuss it again.