Nuclear officials from Russia and Norway have met online to discuss raising sunken nuclear submarines from Arctic waters, the bulk of which were intentionally scuttled by the Soviet Navy during the darkest years of the Cold War.
While Moscow will take the lead in the efforts, the Norwegian government and Bellona have long encouraged Russia to raise the vessels, as their unstable reactors pose a risk of contaminating critical fishing waters close to Scandinavia’s northern coast.
The talks also included updates on a raft of other nuclear safety projects the two countries have undertaken over the past 25 years under the banner of the Russian-Norwegian Nuclear Safety Commission, most aimed at cleaning up the Soviet legacy of radioactive waste in Russia’s northwest.
It’s a daunting and multi-faceted task, including projects like removing spent nuclear submarine fuel from Andreyeva Bay, a former refueling site for Russia’s Northern Nuclear Fleet. Other endeavors target civilian waste like the Lepse nuclear service ship, a vessel once considered the biggest radioactive threat in Northwest Russia. Other efforts have yet to be fully developed, like those geared toward establishing a long-term radioactive waste repository in the northwest region.
Late last month, both sides said they were encouraged by their quarter century’s worth of progress in nuclear safety when they spoke by video link amid the coronavirus.
“I am very pleased that we were able to hold a meeting of the commission, despite the pandemic,” said Audun Halvorsen, the state secretary to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It is extremely important for us that such events should not be interrupted, and that we continue to conduct an open dialogue and exchange information, since for Norway cooperation with Russia in the field of nuclear and radiation safety is a priority. We have achieved a lot in 25 years.”
He also hailed the role that non-government organizations have played in that history.
Oskar Njaa, who heads up Bellona’s international projects, agreed.
“The role of NGOs in this process should also not be underestimated,” he said. “The more environmental organizations that are involved in such processes as today, the easier it is for us to make a constructive contribution to solving problems.”
Primary on the minds of the Norwegian side were the progress on Andreyeva Bay and the Lepse – and fears that a recent bridge collapse in Murmansk might hinder the removal of spent nuclear fuel from both.
Anatoly Grigoryev, who heads the international programs division of Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, said that the process of securing the Lepse, which accrued 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies from icebreakers during its career, will be achieved by the end of this year. As for Andreyeva Bay, radiation danger there has been decreased by a third, he said.
Of the 22,000 nuclear fuel assemblies that had piled up at the old navy base over the years, Grigoriyev said that 7,500 had thus far been removed. By the end of the year, several fuel assemblies that had been stored in the open air at the facility will also be taken away, he said.
“Last fall, I personally was in Andreev Bay and could observe how safely the spent nuclear fuel was shipped from the facility to the vessel and leaves for Atomflot,” said ElisabethVik Aspaker, head of Norway’s Tromsø region.
Another old sub Russian base, called Gremikha, has been engaged in dismantling several experimental reactors that were used on Soviet submarines. Of the eleven vessels that ran liquid metal cooled reactors, Gremikha has now dealt with seven. Still, Grigorieyev said such reactors presented technical difficulties, meaning only one core per year could be safely handled by Gremikha per year.
Ole Harbitz, who heads Norway’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, was heartened by Rosatom’s plans to recover sunken Soviet subs and other radioactive debris from Arctic waters. According to Grigoriyev, the total activity of the Cold War-era nuclear cast off is some 1 million Curie. Raising it all, is estimates to cost €123 million.
Bellona’s Njaa said the sooner the project is carried out the better, and underscored that Russia’s northwest as a robust infrastructure for the disposal of these wrecks. But the effort will also require technology that Russia, like other many countries, doesn’t yet possess.
“This is a very difficult task that no one in the world has yet dealt with,” said Oleg Kryukov, the director for radioactive waste policy at Rosatom, said. “For each object, the exposure risk will be determined, a forecast of the condition of the object will be made, the priority of the actual lifting will be determined. The main thing is to prevent a single incident.”
He also assured the Norwegian side that the collapsed bridge in the Murmansk region will not affect the removal of spent nuclear fuel from Rosatom’s various regional nuclear safety projects.
“We will fulfill our plans this year in full,” Kryukov said, though he failed to elaborate on how.
Answering Bellona’s questions on when a storage facility for especially dangerous radioactive waste would be built in Russia’s northwest region, Kryukov said no decision had yet been made but that there was no reason to hurry.
“We are engaged in the construction of final isolation points in the country, but we are not going to build such an object in each region,” he said. “We will continue to reliably store waste for a long time and, by using new opportunities, minimize their activity and reduce volumes. In the Murmansk region, we have not yet decided on the placement of the final isolation point for radioactive waste. We will manage to cope with new waste, we haven’t seen anything terrible yet.”