Russian-Norwegian nuclear safety commission ceases work over war in Ukraine

IMG5_k-159 The K-159. Credit: Bellona

Russia has announced its withdrawal from a high-level joint commission it runs with Norway to ensure nuclear safety in the Arctic region, ceasing more than two decades of bilateral progress in cleaning up the radioactive legacy of the Cold War.

The announcement, reported by Norway’s NRK broadcaster, comes weeks after Norway itself froze funding to the commission over Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The news casts a shadow of uncertainty over the future of several major radiation safety projects – from the removal of radioactive spent nuclear fuel from the derelict Soviet submarine base at Andreyeva Bay near the Norwegian border, to raising sunken nuclear submarines off Russia’s Kola Peninsula – that Norway and other European partners have spent millions of dollars to fund.

“It is sad that Norway will no longer be involved in financing the projects,” said Oleg Kryukov, who heads spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste policy for Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, NRK reported.

Removing thousands more spent nuclear fuel assemblies from Andreyeva Bay would not be abandoned but would now take longer as Moscow continues the cleanup unilaterally, said Kryukov.

Norwegian technicians were to oversee some of the most technically demanding fuel removal procedures that were scheduled to begin this year. They will now become Russia’s responsibility.

Kryukov told an online meeting of the commission that freezing the cooperative program “is not good – neither for [Russia and Norway] nor for neighboring countries.”

Norwegian-Russian Commission on nuclear and radiation safety was one of the first and most enduring cooperative programs launched to address the dangers left behind by the Soviet Northern Nuclear Fleet.

Established in the turbulent years following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the commission weathered 25 years of political tremors and mutual suspicion between East and West, often becoming the rare forum where Moscow and its European counterparts could reach agreement.

During the commission’s existence, Norway, Russia, and other European contributors disposed of nearly 200 rusted-out Soviet nuclear submarines that had laid neglected at bases throughout Northwest Russia, still dangerously laden with their spent nuclear fuel.

Later, at Bellona’s urging, the commission worked to fund the removal of 22,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies, many of them damaged, from the site of Andreyeva Bay – a colossal and highly technical project that is still several years from completion.

Though Kryukov has said this work will continue, it is unclear how it will proceed, especially at a time when Moscow’s entire foreign policy has been sidelined by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The most immediate casualty to come of freezing the program will likely be transparency on how these projects are progressing. The joint nature of the commission ensured that Norwegian observers had access to the sites where western money helped fund cleanup. It also accommodated the participation of non-governmental organization like Bellona and many others.

Now, the fate of these projects is uncertain and the pause on cooperation rolls back the clock on the Russian and Norwegian governments, leaving them in the same precarious position they were in during the early 1990s, before the commission’s work began.