Andreyeva Bay cleanup slows to a snail’s pace since invasion of Ukraine

andreyeva bay bottles Spent nuclear fuel stored in so-called “bottles” at Andreyeva Bay. Credit: Fylkesmannen i Finnmark

In 2017, Russia began a landmark project ridding one of its most dangerous Cold War relics of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. The effort to clean up Andreyeva Bay — a submarine base near Murmansk uniquely positioned to contaminate the Barents Sea — was the culmination of a years-long and often strained cooperative effort between Moscow and numerous European nations, chief among them Norway and the United Kingdom.

The outbreak of war in Ukraine in February 2022 disrupted that progress and drained the project of millions in international funding as European nations suspended their contributions in protest of Moscow’s invasion.

In the early days of the war, officials with Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, insisted they would continue Andreyeva Bay’s cleanup without international assistance, though it was unclear on what funding that would be done.

It wasn’t until Rosatom’s annual conference convened in Murmansk this past July that any news of how these projects were progressing saw the light of day. But even then, the audience a was select one. Bellona — which had attended the annual Rosatom meeting in prewar times — has only viewed the conference presentations in written form.

In fact, none of Rosatom’s former international partners whose funding has driven the Andreyeva Bay project — nations like Norway, France, the United Kingdom and others from Europe— were invited. Instead, the international delegation consisted primarily of countries like Belarus, Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan and others from the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States.

“Most of these countries don’t know anything about the Arctic,” said Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, who is a former member of Rosatom’s Public Council, which was disbanded when the invasion began. “They were invited so the organizers could call the event ‘international.’”

As it turns out, Rosatom hasn’t made any significant progress on the cleanup since the war estranged it from its primary international partners. The problems that remained at the Andreyeva Bay site before war broke out are the same problems Rosatom is addressing now.  And where the cleanup was forecast to be completed by 2028 before the Ukraine invasion, current projections by Rosatom officials put the completion date much later.

The disruption to Andreyeva Bay and other cleanup projects threatens to turn back the clock on more than two decades of environmental progress in Northwest Russia.


Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States built more than 400 nuclear submarines, assuring each superpower the ability to fire nuclear missiles from sea even after their land-based silos had been decimated by a first strike. The fjords and coastlines around Murmansk adjacent to Norway became the hub of the Soviet Northern Fleet, and a dumping ground for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

After the Iron Curtain was drawn back, the disturbing scale of this legacy came to light. It was revealed that a storage building at Andreyeva Bay  — the now notorious Building No 5 — had leaked some 600,000 metric tons of irradiated water into the Barents Sea from a nuclear fuel storage pool in 1982. The site contained 22,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies pulled from more than 100 subs, many kept in rusted containers stored in the open air.

This slow-motion nuclear disaster continued to unfold in near secrecy until Bellona brought it to international attention in 1996, when it published a groundbreaking report on Northwest Russia’s nuclear woes.

Fearing contamination, Norway spearheaded a sweeping cleanup effort with other Western nations. Combined they spent more than $1 billion to dismantle 197 decommissioned Soviet nuclear subs that rusted dockside, still loaded with spent nuclear fuel. One thousand Arctic navigation beacons powered by strontium batteries were replaced, many with solar powered units provided by the Norwegians.

Then, six years ago, the first batches of spent nuclear fuel began their journey away from Andreyeva Bay to safer storage — a process meant to continue for another decade thereafter. By 2021, more than half of the spent fuel assemblies had been removed. Later that year, damaged spent fuel fragments lying at the bottom of Building No 5’s storage pools had also been extracted. Real progress was being made.

Progress since the beginning of the war

Since the beginning of the war, however, the tempo of removing spent fuel assemblies has nearly ground to a halt. If 2017, the first year of the removal, saw 18 batches of spent fuel transported away from the site, then in 2022 and 2023, according to various reports, only two batches left Andreyeva Bay.

The disposition of solid radioactive waste at the site, which includes solid waste inside the storage buildings, also remains unclear and appears to have slowed considerably as a result of the war. As of 2022, some 9,500 cubic meters of it — or roughly 51 percent of the entire legacy waste at the site — remained in place. This waste was scheduled to depart for other storage bases, such as the Saida Bay site, by 2026. Now, that’s schedule may be unrealistic.

About half of Andreyeva Bay’s infrastructure— structures like Building No 5 and the dry storage facilities No 2-A, 2-I and 3-A, to which spent fuel in Building No 5 was rushed after the 1982 leak — remains irradiated and in need of safe rehabilitation or dismantlement after the spent nuclear fuel they store has been extracted. But since the schedule for finally removing the spent fuel from these structures has been pushed back from 2026 to sometime in the 2030s, dates for the completion of the dismantlement are likewise unclear.

Should that ever get done, what’s left of Building No 5 will present other problems. On the whole, the building itself represents some 15,300 tons of low- to medium level radioactive waste. The two options for dealing with this are to demolish the building and bury the debris in a radioactive waste storage facility, or encasing it in a sarcophagus. As with the other issues at Andreyeva Bay, no real prospective conclusion date for disposing of Building No 5 has been discussed since the outbreak of war.

This is the first in a series of articles examining the state of nuclear cleanup in Russia since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.