Rosatom official puts deadline on raising old nuclear submarines

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

An official with Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, has announced a deadline for raising two Soviet-era nuclear submarines that have been lying for decades at the bottom of seas in the Arctic over fears their reactors could contaminate fertile international fishing grounds.

“As indicated in the strategy for the development of the Arctic, 2030, not earlier,” Anatoly Grigoriev, head of Rosatom’s international technical assistance project, told Interfax late last month.

The announcement confirms what unnamed officials had earlier told Russian state media more than a year ago. Since then, Bellona has urged Russia, during its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, to pursue retrieving the submarines to avoid the contamination risk their reactors, and the spent nuclear fuel they contain,  pose to the ocean environment.

Grigoriev’s remarks concerned the K-27 and K-159, both of which went down still loaded with their uranium fuel. Both submarines, say experts, are in a precarious state. But the submarines sank under different circumstances.

The K-27 was scuttled intentionally in 1982, and its reactor was plugged with an industrial sealant before the Soviet Navy submerged it in the shallows around the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago. But there is evidence that the sealant is eroding.

Last month, divers from the Center for Underwater Research of the Russian Geographical Society conducted a survey of the submarine’s hull. Metal pieces were cut free and the thickness of the hull was measured, along with other inspections.

The K-159, which sank while it was being towed to decommissioning in 2003, poses similar threats. Some 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel remained in its reactor when it went down in some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the Kara Sea.

In both cases, experts fear that a nuclear chain reaction could occur should water leak into the submarines’ reactor compartments.

sunken subs map A map showing the locations of radioactive debris sunk by the Soviet Navy. This includes the K-27 and K-159 submarines, as well as the reactor compartments from the К-11, К-19, and К-140 submarines, as well as waste from the Lenin nuclear icebreaker.

Russian scientists have kept a close eye on the K-159, launching regular expeditions to monitor for potential radiation leaks. According to their data, should the submarine depressurize, radionuclides could spread over hundreds of kilometers, heavily impacting the local fishing industry.

Grigoriev has earlier estimated that raising the wrecks will cost some €123 million – almost exactly what experts say would be the cost of damages should contamination occur.

“Should the K-159 depressurize, it could cause €120 million of damage per month,” Grigoriev told Bellona at a meeting in 2020.

Yet the subs represent just a fraction of the radiation hazards that the Soviet Navy dumped at sea. Between 1959 and 1992, the Soviets carried out 80 missions to sink radioactive debris in Arctic water. In total, some 18,000 objects considered to be radioactive waste were plunged to Arctic depths. Aside from the K-159 and the K-27, the Soviet Navy scuttled reactor compartments, solid radioactive waste, a number of irradiated vessels, as well as old metal structures and radioactive equipment.

The majority of this debris was left in the eastern bays of the Kara Sea near the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago. Still, the exact location of some of these sunken objects is still unknown. The whereabouts of the reactor compartment from the K-140 nuclear submarine remains unaccounted for.

And there are other radiation hazards that are farther afield. The K-278, or Komsomolets, nuclear submarine lies at the bottom of the Norwegian Sea.

“A quarter of all the radioactive waste that has been sunk in the oceans belongs to us,” Sergei Antipov, director of strategic planning and project management at the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in 2020.

In his recent remarks, Grigoriev said Russian officials were working with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development in order to fund retrieving the submarines.