When Norway assesses potential nuclear risks in Northern Russia, it counts among them not just decades of intentionally scuttled radioactive trash – including two entire nuclear submarines – but also vessels transporting spent nuclear fuel throughout the Arctic, specifically from Andreyeva Bay.
These considerations were part of a seminar held at the Arctic Frontiers forum last week in Tromsø, Norway, which tallied up ongoing threats of nuclear environmental contamination in Northwest Russia.
For decades, Norway, along with numerous other donor nations, has invested millions of dollars in improving the safety and security of Northwest Russia’s vast Cold War nuclear legacy sites.
According to Øyvind Selnæs, a senior adviser with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, Norway expects to see a spike in the number of ships passing through the Arctic carrying nuclear fuel and materials as Russia seeks to build new nuclear icebreakers to guide traffic along the Northern Sea Route. He also forecasted an increase the number vessels carrying spent nuclear fuel.
“It took many years and huge funds of international assistance to start exporting SNF from the former naval base in the Murmansk region – Andreeva Bay,” Selnaes said.” Last year, this process began, and it will take several years. Risks associated with the maritime transportation sector will now increase. ”
Andrei Zolotkov, who heads Bellona’s Murmansk office, said that Norway’s fears of possible contamination from these shipments are largely without basis.
“Fearing the significant volume of transportation of spent fuel from Andreeva Bay to Murmansk, one must take into account the level of security that has been achieved by now in carrying out these operations,” he said. “Transported spent nuclear fuel is a sealed product that meets all modern safety requirements and is designed to preserve these properties in emergency circumstances. Of course, there is always a risk, but it is minimal.”
Yet Norway’s concern is understandable. A huge share of the country’s exports come from the Arctic in the form of seafood, to which rumors of leaking Russian spent fuel would be destructive.
“The fish was, is, and will be our most valuable export product,” said Tove Sleipnes, a consultant to the Norwegian Seafood Council. “Annually, we ship more than 2.6 million tons of seafood to 140 countries. In 2017, exports of fish and seafood amounted to almost 100 billion kroner ($12.9 billion). Any rumor, any incident could destroy our market, so for Norway it is important that cooperation with Russia in the field of nuclear and radiation safety remain open. “
She cited as an example an erroneous Chinese media report of a few years ago that said ebola was spread by Norwegian Salmon.
“This absolutely fake news spread instantly throughout the the world,” she said. “We managed to refute this rumor and prevent a collapse, but Norway was ready to stop any supplies of seafood not only just to China, but the rest of Asia.”
Norway and Russia have also run joint expeditions in 2012 and 2014 to area in Arctic waters where the Soviets sunk nuclear waste.
The 2012 expedition surveyed the waters off the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where Russia scuttled the K-27 nuclear submarine in 1981 after it suffered a radiation accident that killed nine sailors. After a failed attempt to repair it, the Soviets sealed its reactor and dumped it in the Arctic shallows. The Novaya Zemlya area is also home to nearly 2000 containers of radioactive waste also sunk over several decades during Soviet times.
The joint expedition concluded that, despite this, there had been no increase to levels of radioactivity on the seabed since it was first measured in 1994.
In 2014, another joint expedition explored an area near Kildin Island where the K-159 nuclear submarine sank in 2003. Scientists took sediment and biota samples in the area of the flooded sub, which showed evidence of cesium 137. But the values were approximately the same near the K-159 as they were near Bear Island, the site of another Russian nuclear submarine shipwreck, the Komsomolets. The low levels, however, have done little to quell fears of a possible breach of the subs’ reactors, which could lead to more significant contamination.
Further tests of the samples in Norway might yield more information. But for the past two years, Russia has withheld the samples taken on the joint mission from the Norwegian side.
A number of years ago, Norway learned of Russia’s plans to transport its floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, from St Petersburg to Murmansk alone the Norwegian coast. The notion of two operating KLT-40 nuclear reactors skirting its coast made Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs nervous.
“Thanks to our loud protests, as well as pressure from the international community, Russia has agreed not to transport the floating nuclear plant along our coast with its fuel onboard,” said Yovind Selnaes.
Inger Eikelmann, another representative of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, attributed the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s vociferous reaction to fears of bad weather.
“We would not want the floating nuclear power plant to be towed to our coast in the event of an unforeseen situation,” Eikelmann said. “We conducted a global diplomatic effort to ensure that nuclear materials were not towed along our coast. Russia has found another option.”
Russia has now agreed to fuel the floating plant in Murmansk at Atomflot, the nuclear icebreaker port, which has the necessary infrastructure. To reach Murmansk, the Akademik Lomonosov will be towed past Finland, Sweden, Poland, Germany and Denmark and further along the coast of Norway.
After the plant is loaded with its fuel and further tests are done, it will be towed along the northern coast of Russia to the Arctic port of Pevek in Chukotka. Once there, it will replace the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant, which Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom will subsequently decommission.
Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general director, supports fueling the floating plant in Murmansk, though he is not a fan of the Akademik Lomonosov overall. At least this way, Russia can avoid risks that come with nautical towing a barge loaded with nuclear fuel.
“There are specialists in Murmansk for such work, as well as a lot of experience,” he said.
Eikelmann added she had confidence in the expertise of Russian nuclear workers, and had faith Moscow was being sufficiently transparent about how safety this work was being done.
“We are confident in the reliability of information from Russia in the event of an incident,” she told Bellona. ‘We have established successful cooperation between departments and regional governments. “