Raising sunken nuclear subs finally taking center stage

The K-159 nuclear submarine at dock in Gremikha awaiting its final tow.
The K-159 nuclear submarine at dock in Gremikha awaiting its final tow.

Publish date: April 22, 2015

Written by: Anna Kireeva

MURMANSK─ Two nuclear submarines lost or sunk by the Russian and Soviet Navies still lay at the bottom of the sea posing a possible source of contamination and laying tripwires to Moscow’s ambitious plans to develop the industrial and oil infrastructure of the Arctic.

MURMANSK─ Two nuclear submarines lost or sunk by the Russian and Soviet Navies still lay at the bottom of the sea posing a possible source of contamination and laying tripwires to Moscow’s ambitious plans to develop the industrial and oil infrastructure of the Arctic.

The issue was one under discussion at a joint conference held by Bellona and Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom last week in Murmansk. Authorities say lifting the K-27, scuttled by the Soviet navy after an accident, and the K-159, which the Russian navy lost while towing it to dismantlement, will require substantial research – and financing. The question of moving the submarines has long been on the table, but has gained little momentum in past years.

Now, though, they are standing in the way of Russia’s new national preoccupation with developing the Arctic for industry, oil and gas. The push early this week took antic proportions when Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin made a surprise visit Satuday to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard with no visa and despite sanctions against him not to enter the Europe for his role in in destabilizing the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Rogozin took a dip in the freezing water, donned a hulking fur hat and posed for insouciant pictures waving a Russia flag to the consternation of Norway’s Foreign Ministry before departing for the North Pole.

From there, he likened Russia’s conquest of the Arctic to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

“Last year, we had the historical reunification of Sevastopol and the Crimea, Rogozin told Russia’s state controlled Channel One (in Russian). “This year, we present a new view and new powerful stress on the development of the Arctic. Basically, it’s all about the same.”

To realize the jingoistic mission, Russia has prioritized a giant Arctic pollution cleanup operation that would include dealing with decades of nuclear dumping in Arctic seas.

As revealed by Bellona in 2012, such litter includes nuclear submarines and ships, former military port infrastructure, sunken containers of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

The waste includes 17,000 containers of radioactive waste; 19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 nuclear reactors including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery, two subs – the K-27, dumped in the shallows of the Kara Sea’s Novaya Zemlya Archipelago in 1981, and K-127, which sunk in 2003.

The joint forum, called “Results of cooperation on elevating nuclear and radioactive safety in Northwest Russia” took a more sober tone than Rogozin’s “ministerial visit,” as Russian media called it.

“If there is a lot of work going into the sphere of vessel dismantlement and rehabilitating land infrastructure, then the issue of sunken submarines and other radiation hazards has fallen from attention,” Mikhail Korbinsky, the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBRAE) laboratory chief told the conference.

The radioactive dangers are clustered around Novaya Zemlya – a former nuclear test site – in the Kara Sea, and stand in the way of oil and gas prospecting points.

The most dangerous cast offs, say scientists, are the submarines, as the nuclear fuel in their reactors could ignite a serious emergency.

K-159 not prepped for sinking

The derelict K-159, a November Class sub commissioned in 1963 while under tow from Gremikha to dismantlement at the Polyarny shipyard north of Murmansk. The vessels hull was rusted through in so many places it was kept afloat by pontoons, which were in no better condition than the subs hull.

On August 28, 2003, 10 sailors were loaded aboard the sub to keep the pontoons pressurized during the tow. In the early morning hours of August 30, the convoy ran into a squall that ripped one of the pontoons away. It subsequently sank in 200 meters of water, killing nine of the sailors.

Of concern is that the submarine has no additional protective shielding preventing the escape of radionuclides into the environment. The sub also sustained an impact while sinking that could have further damaged its already shabby hull, and further increase the risk of rust corrosion and the release of radiation.

The scientists said this submarine is the more radioactive of the two that have sunk, and that it went down in an area of heavy marine traffic.

The scuttled K-27

The K-27, with its liquid metal cooled reactor, was prepped to sink. It’s reactors were flooded with a special preservation element – but a few years later it was discovered the preservative wasn’t holding.

“Water ingress into the reactor could cause an uncontrolled chain reaction,” said Korbinsky. “For the situation to reach heightened criticality, only five or six liters of water entering [the reactor] is sufficient.” He added that the subs highly enriched uranium fuel lying in shallow water of only 30 meters it the worst possible situation for a chain reaction.

The condition of the K-27. (Photo: IBRAE)
The condition of the K-27. (Photo: IBRAE)

Korbinsky said the most pressing issue surrounding sunken nuclear and radioactive debris is the absence of a Russian federal agency to coordinate efforts for their retrieval and safe storage. And no one can effectively trace their chain of custody, which makes assigning responsibility difficult. Further, he added, there’s a lack of regulations on seawater pollution, and a woeful lack of resources to deal with its sources.

Andrey Kramorenko, head of research and development for rescue and underwater technology at the Russian Navy’s Scientific Research Institute, told the conference the K-27 poses the most dangers for retrieval because its reactor might explode. He echoed Korbinsky, saying its shallow grave also presented risks.

But he did say there were a number of options being considered for its raising. The first is to engage a foreign crane vessel for raising loads from the seabed – in this case 3,300 tons worth of load. He said the use of such vessels for underwater retrieval was widespread under the Soviet and Russian regime, and elsewhere in the world. Another sunken Russian sub, the Kursk, for example, was raised from 180 meters of seawater by such a vessel.

A second variant is to use a means of lifting and transporting the vessel with technology that has a submersible ballast-filled module. A third is to use a universal lifting barge. The fourth, to lift it using steel pontoons, which is the most common method that’s been used in Russia. The chosen method, he said, will depend on the specifics as they emerge on further investigation. And whatever means is chosen must be confirmed by intensive engineering and calculations.

“The number of a sunken objects is always a risk,” said Korbinsky. “Better to raise them with expensive equipment quickly that with cheap equipment slowly, as the time factor in the conditions of the Arctic is very important. He added that Russia has robust experience lifting objects out of the sea and can raise the subs by itself. Success will depend on creating competent cooperation among participants in the work, their coherent action and the political will of the authorities to free the Arctic of its nuclear legacy.