Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom said last week that more than two decades worth of efforts to rid the Arctic of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel from decommissioned submarines will now come to an end. Bellona fears Rosatom is leaving undone a raft of crucial projects initiated with international support.
” [This work]began back in the early 2000s with the analysis of large deposits of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear submarine reactors,” said Rosatom CEO Aleksei Likhachev in remarks reported by official Russian newswire Tass “In total, thousands of tons of radioactive materials have been handled, and today we are at the finish line of this work, returning these territories to public use under strict administrative, public, and international control.”
Since the 1990s, the Bellona Foundation has been involved in discovering and documenting nuclear hazards and radiation threats in Arctic Russia and based on that experience, the organization asserts that Likhachev’s announcement is untrue — Russia is nowhere near the “finish line” in these efforts.
Furthermore, Likhachev’s remarks contradict earlier statements from Rosatom that many of these cleanup operations would be ongoing until late in this decade.
“Russian authorities are backtracking on earlier statements from May last year, and confirming Bellona’s fears that these projects will not be continued or completed, says Frederic Hauge, president of the Bellona Foundation.
“The nuclear cleanup in the Arctic is not done, there is still radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel that needs securing – both in the former marine base at Andreeva Bay and at the bottom of the Arctic seas”, says underlines Hauge.
Since the early 2000s, cleanup projects to rid the Arctic of the nuclear legacy of the Soviet Northern fleet have been ongoing in North-West Russia. These efforts were orchestrated through international cooperation between Russia and other countries and aided by large funding pledges from international donors.
These multinational efforts continued until February of 2022, when Moscow invaded Ukraine. Since then, international assistance to Moscow has been put on ice. But even then, key figures at Rosatom pledged that cleanup work would continue, nonetheless.
But Likhachev’s statement seems to put an end to that and declares victory well before the battle is finished
Those items remaining to be cleaned up and secured include at least 11,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies at Andreyeva Bay, a former Soviet submarine base. They also include two sunken nuclear submarines, over a dozen nuclear reactors and barrels of radioactive waste scuttled by the Soviet Navy in the Kara and Barents Seas. Issues of securing spent fuel and radioactive waste stored on nuclear icebreaker service ships likewise remain unresolved.
In 2022, after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities sought to assure their international counterparts that each of these projects would nonetheless continue, despite the withdrawal of international assistance.
Bellona had since that time been concerned that Russia, in its state of war, would fail to prioritize these critical projects, and in November the organization warned that the efforts to lift sunken Soviet submarines would at best be indefinitely postponed
“This goes a long way in proving that we were right to worry. It is unclear what the consequences will be. If Russian authorities do not prioritize to continue these projects, we fear that the conditions around the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste will deteriorate,” says Hauge in Bellona.
“We risk that we will see history repeating itself, and that the same issues that were acute before the cleanup started 20 years ago will return in full force,” Hauge explains.
“Whether this means that any further work on securing radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel in the region will stop is unclear. It is also an open question whether this will affect the safe handling of the spent fuel that already has been secured and transported out of the Arctic to other locations,” continues Hauge.
The issue of the sunken objects left by the Soviet Union will not be solved by itself. Ninety percent of that radiation from the sunken objects in the Kara and Barents seas is emitted by six objects that Rosatom has deemed urgent and targeted for lifting: two nuclear submarines; the reactor compartments from three nuclear submarines; and the reactor from the legendary icebreaker Lenin.
“We consider even the extremely low probability of radioactive materials leaking from these objects as posing an unacceptable risk for the ecosystems of the Arctic,” Anatoly Grigoriev, Rosatom’s head of international technical assistance, said in July 2022.
“Why do they choose to say that the cleanup is done now – when that clearly is not the case? Rosatom has time and again underlined the importance of finishing the cleanup projects and lifting the sunken objects from the bottom of the sea, says Hauge.
“If we were to speculate, it might be that they are trying to force a renewed dialogue on financing of these projects, despite the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps they are fishing for reactions from Norwegian authorities and other western governments – perhaps particularly when it comes to the sunken objects,” continues Hauge
“They know that the more delayed a decision to raise these subs is, the higher the risk of a lifting operation failing. Thus, such a statement can put pressure on former cooperation partners to reevaluate their decision to discontinue cooperation with Russia and financial support on these topics because of the invasion of Ukraine. If that is the correct interpretation, then it is a form of blackmail – nuclear blackmail,” Hauge concludes.