Kursk – The top of an iceberg

Publish date: August 22, 2000

Written by: Nils Bøhmer

The Kursk submarine, with its two nuclear reactors is now laying at the sea bottom at 108 meters in the Barents Sea. Since this is in the middle of one of the world richest fishing areas much attention have been given to the possible environmental impact of the nuclear reactors on board. But Kursk is only a small part of the environmental threat to the Arctic Oceans.

The Bellona Foundation has the last decade investigated the potential sources for radioactive contamination of the Arctic Oceans. Our findings so far shows that there are numerous potential sources, but that the Arctic Oceans are still one of the cleanest at the Northern hemisphere. We have also found that intermediate solutions for securing the nuclear waste can be found.

The Northern fleet has some 40 nuclear submarines in active service; each of them has two reactors. In addition there are 110 laid up nuclear submarines, in the Northern fleet. In these laid up submarines there are 135 nuclear reactors with spent nuclear fuel in 72 submarines. The fuel is left in the laid up submarine because the on-shore storages are filled up, and there are economical and technical problems to reprocess the spent nuclear fuel to the reprocessing facilities in Mayak in South Ural.

These submarines are laid up at the different naval bases at the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk close to Archangels. They receive minimal attention and maintainance, due to the financial situation in the Russian navy. According to a report from the Russian Atomic Ministry, 30 of these submarines faces the risk of sinking..

In addition to the laid up submarines, there are onshore storages for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste at the naval bases. The largest storage for naval spent nuclear fuel is located in the Andreeva Bay some 45 km east of the Norwegian border. The storage contains spent fuel from approximately 90 naval reactors. The storage was put in operation in the mid-80’ies and was a temporary solution. The storage is still in operation, and need repairs badly. At the Gremikha naval base east on the Kola Peninsula there is one storage with spent fuel, in addition to several reactor cores from liquid metal cooled submarine reactors.

–> In total there are spent nuclear fuel from the equivalent of about 235 military naval reactors either stored in laid up submarines, or in on shore storages. The storage conditions are very unsatisfactory, and the situation has been worse in the latest years due to lack of maintaining.

Bellona Foundation recommends that a new intermediate storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste is build at the Kola Peninsula to prevent radioactive contamination of the Arctic Oceans.

The building of such a facility will require a substantial international economical assistance. But preventing a pollution of the Arctic will have a greater cost, and Bellona Foundation urges the European Union, The United States and Norway to join force with Russia, not only when it comes to securing the Kursk, but also for the whole nuclear challenge we face at the Kola Peninsula.

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