Russian officials set eight-year time table for lifting sunken nuclear subs

k-159 tail The tail section of the K-159 submarine before it sank. Credit: Bellona

Officials from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, have reiterated plans to raise two sunken nuclear submarines from the Arctic in an interview with government-sponsored media – an effort they say will be completed within 8 years.

The unnamed officials, speaking with the Tass newswire, said they would aim to recover the K-159 and K-27, two entire nuclear submarines, as well as the reactors from three others, all of which went down filled with their uranium fuel. The officials also said they would raise spent nuclear fuel from the Lenin nuclear icebreaker, which was likewise dumped in Arctic waters.

Most of this debris was scuttled intentionally by the Soviet Navy before the 1990s, prior to international laws forbidding the dumping of radioactive waste at sea. The K-159 sank while being towed for dismantlement in 2003.

The notion of raising sunken radioactive hazards has been discussed before. In February, Bellona participated in meetings with Rosatom officials and members of other ministries to outline the effort as part of Russia’s ascendency to the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council next year.

But the Tass report from earlier this month represents the first instance in which a timeframe for the project has been discussed in Russian state media outlets.

“We think it’s necessary to raise all six objects, including the K-159 and the K-27,” an unnamed Rosatom official said in the Tass article. “Raising these six objects, their safe transportation to a place to dismantle them and there preparation them for long term storage will take eight years.”

NRPA sub k-159 map The location of the K-159 sunken nuclear submarine. Credit: Norwegian Radiation and Nucear Safety Authority

Russia’s Emergency Services Ministry says that some 18,000 pieces of radioactive litter, most of it dumped by the Soviet Navy, have been left in the depths of the Barents and Kara seas off the coast of Murmansk.

Among the finds, according to a catalogue the Russian government released in 2012 are: Some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste; 19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 nuclear reactors, including five still loaded with spent nuclear fuel; and 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery.

Scientists at the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, or IBRAE, say that time and corrosion have erased thousands of these hazards, leaving about 1,000 that continue to pose high risks of radioactive contamination.

Chief among those are the K-159 and the K-27, both of which pose the greatest threat to the environments in which they now lie.

The K-159, in particular, lies in the midst of fertile international fishing waters in the Kara Sea. Should a serious breach in the vessel’s sunken reactors occur, Russian experts estimate that fishing would be banned in the area for at least a month, costing the Russian and Norwegian economies about $120 million. That’s just slightly less than most estimates for raising the vessel.

Unlike the K-159, the K-27 was scuttled intentionally – a nuclear waste dumping practice the Soviet Union had with the United States. Launched in 1962, the K-27 suffered a radiation leak in one of its experimental liquid-metal cooled reactors after just three days at sea. Over the next 10 years, various attempts were made to repair or replace the reactors, but in 1979, the navy gave up and decommissioned the vessel.

Too radioactive to be dismantled conventionally, the Soviet Navy towed the K-27 to the Arctic Novaya Zemlya nuclear testing range in 1982 and scuttled it in one of the archipelago’s fjords at a depth of about 30 meters. The sinking took some effort. The sub was weighed down by concrete and asphalt to secure its reactor and a hole was blown in its aft ballast tank to swamp it.

But the fix won’t last forever. The asphalt was only meant to stave off contamination until 2032. Worse still is that the K-27’s reactors could be in danger of generating an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction, prompting many experts to demand it be retrieved first.

The majority of these radiation hazards are located in the eastern bays of the Kara Sea near the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago. But the exact location of some of these sunken objects is still unknown. The whereabouts of the reactor compartment from the K-140 nuclear submarine, for instance, remains unaccounted for.

Andrei Zolotkov, head of Bellona’s Murmansk office, say that the vast majority of nuclear refuse dumped during Soviet times has become less and less radioactive over time. But he added that those items that contain spent nuclear fuel – such as the submarines and the other dumped reactors – should be raised first.

“We need to discuss, first of all, the dumped and sunken objects containing spent nuclear fuel,” he says. “This means the submarines with their spent nuclear fuel as well as parts of the reactor from the icebreaker Lenin. It’s namely these items that pose a threat to the environment in the near future.”