Fate of contaminated Soviet submarine base uncertain as Ukraine war grinds on

Subs laid up at the former Russian naval base at Gremikha. (Source: Bellona)
Subs laid up at the former Russian naval base at Gremikha. (Source: Bellona)

Publish date: October 31, 2023

Over two decades ago, an irradiated and nearly forgotten Soviet nuclear submarine base became a hive of foreign activity.

Over two decades ago, an irradiated and nearly forgotten Soviet nuclear submarine base became a hive of foreign activity.

The French, Swedes, Americans, and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development showered it with money. The Italians built a special ship to bear away old nuclear fuel stored along its shores. Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, poured in funding, technology and expertise.

All told, some €70 million was put toward an internationally cooperative effort to reclaim Gremikha, a former Soviet submarine base located on Russia’s Arctic shores about 350 kilometers east of the Murmansk Fjord.

As a result of that financial infusion, workers at the site finally received the protections they needed to ply their trade amid a background radiation of 3.2 microsieverts per hour — a level that is unhealthy for prolonged exposure.  Soon, an infrastructure sprung up, allowing for the safe removal of some 116 containers of spent nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste.

The efforts were proving successful. By 2014, technicians had extracted 898 nuclear fuel assemblies from decommissioned subs operating pressurized water reactors. Among those were 141 damaged assemblies that required special handling.

Other technologies were developed to handle spent fuel removal from the unique lead-bismuth cooled reactors that were dumped at Gremikha by Alfa Class attack submarines — a complicated process requiring the development of new methods.

Indeed, over the last few years, it appeared that the Gremikha rehabilitation project was  within striking distance of completion, which would have marked a milestone in rolling back Russia’s Cold War legacy of nuclear hazards.

Then war broke out.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, a host of critical international efforts addressing the Soviet radiation heritage ground to a halt as European nations suspended their funding in protest.

In the early days of the war, officials with Rosatom insisted they would continue Arctic nuclear cleanup efforts 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 summer 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 these projects — 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.

But much of what was revealed at the conference — aside from the unraveling of Russia’s decades’-long partnerships — was that the progress in nuclear cleanup has been halting.

Work at Andreyeva Bay, perhaps the most significant radiation cleanup project Russia has embarked on in the past two decades — has slowed to a snail’s pace.

And plans to retrieve more than a half century’s worth of intentionally scuttled radioactive waste — including two entire nuclear submarines — from the seas of the Arctic is also languishing on ice.

At Gremikha, several portions of fuel from liquid-cooled reactors remain to be dealt with. Ideally, they will be removed and shuttled to Sayda Bay, which is another beneficiary of international assistance. The site is a former fishing village that, with the help of the German government, was retrofitted to store reactor compartments from decommissioned submarines.  Saida is further slated to host a large center for storing and processing intermediate-level radioactive waste that has accumulated on the Kola Peninsula. But whether these plans will be implemented remains unclear.

Indeed, an entire generation’s efforts to rid the Arctic of the Soviet nuclear legacy has all but ground to a halt under the yoke of war. Rosatom bears ultimate responsibility for the continued cleanup. But in its newly militarized role in the Ukrainian conflict, it is hard to imagine that the corporation will make such projects a priority.

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