No news on lost missiles – but Russian-Norwegian group reports progress on other nuclear issues

The tail section of the K-159 submarine before it sank.
The tail section of the K-159 submarine before it sank.

Publish date: September 5, 2018

Written by: Anna Kireeva

When officials from Norway met their counterparts from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, to discuss issues of nuclear saftey this week, they brought a host of questions to the table – one concerning reports that Russia had lost a nuclear powered cruise missile at sea.

When officials from Norway met their counterparts from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, to discuss issues of nuclear safety this week, they brought a host of questions to the table – one concerning reports that Russia had lost a nuclear powered cruise missile at sea.

According to American intelligence reports cited by US media, the errant missile, powered by an onboard nuclear reactor, had gone astray during a failed test sometime between November and February and crashed into the Barents Sea.

As luck would have it, that area – thanks to its long history of sunken atomic debris and as home to the former Soviet nuclear submarine fleet – is a primary concern to bilateral efforts in bringing radiation contamination worries to heel. The joint group of Russians and Norwegians have been meeting to discuss these issues annually for 21 years.

This year, Russian officials had no news to offer in the case of the missing missile and characterized the US media reports as “fake.”

Vladimir Potsyapun, Rosatom’s deputy director for state policy in the field of radioactive waste, explained that the corporation had forwarded questions about the missile disappearance to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which in turn has to forward the question to Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

“As soon as an answer materializes, we will tell you,” he told the gathering, adding that, “Unfortunately, we live at a time when ‘fake’ is substituted for reality.”

What’s not fake, however, is that the Barents Sea region has for more than half a century been home to Russia’s forgotten nuclear secrets.

In 2012, Moscow released data on the extent of the damage. Between 1955 and the early 1990s, the Soviet Navy scuttled some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste in the Arctic, along with 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel, 735 other pieces of radioactive machinery – and an entire nuclear submarine.

On land, other nuclear cast offs collected in places like Andreyeva Bay, a former submarine maintenance yard where more than 22,000 spent nuclear fuel piled up over the decades. Many of these fuel assemblies are damaged, as are the often-leaky bunkers in which they are stored. Other hazards, like the Lepse nuclear service ship ­– itself crammed with more than 600 radioactive fuel rods from nuclear icebreakers – sat ignored for decades until western governments funded its safe dismantlement.

Even civilian nuclear endeavors pose worries, as the eldest reactors at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant continue to operate well past their primes on run-time extensions granted by the government.

The list goes on. So whether or not the US reports Potsyapun referred to are fake or not doesn’t really matter. A nuclear powered missile lost amid these nuclear headaches would be the least of it.

Fortunately there has been progress on other fronts in the cleanup, and these steps forward were the subject of last week’s bilateral gathering.

“Cooperation in the field of nuclear and radiation safety is very important for our countries,” Audun Halvorsen, state secretary to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said by way of opening the meeting. “We are trying to make the world on both sides of the border safer and hope to satisfy all with the manner in which the projects for ridding spent fuel from Andreyeva Bay are progressing, as well as the disposal of the former floating technical base Lepse.”

Andreyeva Bay

It was only last year, thanks to an international effort sparked by Bellona, that cleanup at Andreyeva Bay finally began. By boat and by rail the accrued fuel rods are slowly leaving the old facility for safer storage in Russia’s Ural Mountains.

andreyevascary Spent nuclear fuel in dry storage at Andreyeva Bay. Credit: Bellona

According to Valery Yermenko, the director of SevRAO, one of Russia’s nuclear waste management agencies, some 2,985 of the spent submarine fuel assemblies have been hauled away.

But larger challenges await in 2019, when technicians at the base will begin removing damaged fuel rods from the facility’s notorious repositories – one of which in 1982 developed cracks, threatening to dump a stew of plutonium, uranium into the Barents Sea.

Much of this work has never before been performed, and a lions share of it will be done with robotic equipment.

Prepping for emergencies

Such a state of affairs requires a bilateral system of alerts, which is especially sensitive given the Soviet history denying that major accidents – such as Chernobyl – took place until time and evidence proved otherwise.

Per Strand, head of the Norwegian Agency for Radiation Protection, or NRPA, underscored the importance of being candid about nuclear incidents, and hailed Russia’s cooperation.

Halvorsen added that this arrangement was crucial for providing a sense of public security. In this, Norway has an advantage among its own citizens.

“According to a survey in our country, 80 percent of Norwegians trust our information and are ready to follow our instructions in case of emergencies,” Strand said.

To further bolster cooperation the NRPA has invited Russia to take part in a national radiation safety exercise that Norway plans to hold in 2020.

Yevgeny Nikora, the deputy governor of the Murmansk Region, addressed the emergency alert system put in place by his government. He said Murmansk’s citizens receive timely information not only in the event of a radiation incident, but in cases of inclement weather, fires and other civil emergencies.

Still, he said there was room for improvement.

“We widely use mobile phone text notification, social networks, etc. The working capacity of this system has been proved by practice,’ he said. “But I would like to note that issues of nuclear safety and how it concerns our population is far from the best.”

Sunken nuclear hazards

As to the nuclear waste containers, reactors and submarines and other radioactive rubbish Russia laid to waste at the bottom of the Arctic’s Kara Sea, Norway and Russia annually launch expeditions to map possible leaks of contamination into the environment.

The bulk of these intentionally sunken hazards lay off the coast of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, itself a former nuclear testing ground, and pose a danger to Russia’s ambitions to drill oil in the Arctic.

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

But the two undersea objects that cause the most apprehension are the K-27 and K-159 nuclear submarines.

The first of these was sunk by the navy in the shallows off the archipelago in 1981. Years before, in 1968, the K-27’s reactor suffered a fatal leak, which damaged its fuel assemblies and killed nine. The Soviet Navy attempted to repair the sub but failed, and instead technicians sealed its reactors and scuttled it.

The K-159, which was decommissioned in 1989, sank in dramatic circumstances in August of 2003. At the time of its sinking, it was being towed from the Gremikha submarine maintenance base to dismantling at the Nerpa shipyard near Murmansk.

When the towing convoy ran into heavy weather, the dilapidated submarine, which was kept afloat by pontoons, snapped its towline and plunged to the depths, drowning nine of the sailors who were aboard to staunch leaks during the journey. The submarine now lies at a depth of 246 meters near Kildin Island in the fertile fishing grounds of Kola Bay.

In the summer of 2014, a three-week long Russian-Norwegian expedition set out to monitor the submarines, as well as the other radioactive junk sunk by the Soviet Navy. But samples taken from the seabed were inexplicably withheld by the Russians from the Norwegian side for several years.

During the joint gathering Halvorsen noted that Norway was finally given the samples, though he shed no light on the cause of the delay. He did say, however, that more expeditions to the undersea nuclear sites were in the offing.

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

Vladimir Romanov of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, called for increased monitoring of the submarine wrecks, as the protective barriers around their reactors are sure to erode with time.

Ole Harbitz, the NRPA’s general director, agreed, and said the K-159 was an especially urgent case because of its location. But he admitted there were limits to what can be done.

“We can’t just tell Russia to lift these objects or not ­– it has to be their decision,” he said at the gathering. “You have to do research and figure out if the object would survive the ascent, or whether you need to look for other solutions – perhaps you need to build a sarcophagus around it.”

The Russian government has repeatedly promised to raise the K-159, but has failed to deliver. As has so often been the case in Russia’s nuclear cleanup endeavors, there is little funding available to lift the vessel or even conduct sufficient monitoring.

What the public wants

Norway has been keen to encourage the cooperation of civil society organizations with Rosatom, but owing to a Kremlin campaign against non-profit groups, especially foreign ones, the results have often been mixed.

Nonetheless, Rosatom closed the gathering by expressing gratitude to Bellona for bringing the issue of nuclear cleanup in Northwest Russia to international attention.

The next joint meeting between Norwegian and Russian officials is scheduled will be held in 2019 in the Norwegian city of Tromsø.