Norwegian officials hamper swift cleanup of old Russian nuke sub base

andreyeva Rostaom Public council Andreyeva Bay (Photo: Rosatom Public Council)

New delays have arisen in a joint project between Moscow and Oslo to rid the Kola Peninsula of 23,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies from dismantled submarines and 32 tons of radioactive waste parked 50 kilometers from Norway’s far north border.

The efforts to fully remediate Andreyeva Bay, a former Russian Naval submarine base, have required decades of delicate diplomacy between Russia and the West, and have been hindered by Russian reluctance many times.

But now, the snarl is coming from the Norwegian side, as Gunnar Peder Kjønnøy, governor of Norway’s northerly Finnmark County, insists additional navigational beacons be installed along the route of ships that would carry Andreyeva Bay’s radioactive legacy away, Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist, said.

Norway has spearheaded international efforts to secure and then remove spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from Andreyeva Bay – widely regarded as one of the biggest remaining nuclear hazards in Russia’s Northwest.

gunnar kjonnoy Gunnar Peder Kjønnøy, governor of Norway’s northerly Finnmark County. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Barents Observer)

Finnmark county has been a powerbroker in the efforts, and continues to upgrade infrastructure necessary for removing a half-century’s worth of Soviet nuclear junk.

In all, Norway has spent €216 million since cooperative efforts to clean up Andreyeva Bay began two decades ago, according to the Norwegian Radiation Protection Agency, which oversees joint nuclear safety efforts between the two countries.

Why prolong delays?

But Finnmark’s stubbornness on the issue of new navigational beacons is puzzling to Bøhmer.

“Insisting on the new navigational equipment is causing yet another delay to removing spent nuclear fuel from Andreyeva Bay,” he said. “The condition of the spent nuclear fuel stored there is already critical, and its removal is well overdue –all delays at this point are bad news.”

bodytextimage_nils.png Nils Bøhmer, Bellona's executive director. (Photo: Bellona) Photo: Tone foss aspevoll/bellona

Bøhmer and Russian officials alike said the navigational beacons were entirely unnecessary.

New beacons just added whistles and bells

“Equally hazardous cargoes of spent nuclear fuel have been sent along the same route for years and no additional navigational equipment has been needed,” he said. “The navigational conditions are already safe.”

An official with Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom who spoke on the condition of anonymity with the Barents Observer news portal, agreed.

“The modernization will have no influence for the loading and transportation of spent nuclear fuel,” the official told the Barents Observer. “The current condition of the navigational markers ensures safety for boat traffic.”

Bøhmer added that the route to be followed by ships leaving Andreyeva Bay is one that’s also used by the Russian Navy.

“It’s not an intelligent decision to spend Norwegian taxpayers’ money to improve a shipping lane used almost exclusively by the Russian Navy,” he said.

Indeed, Per-Einar Fiskebeck, the chief engineer for Finnmark Country, confirmed in may that the Norwegian-financed beacons will be the property of Russia’s Northern Naval Fleet, the Barents Observer reported in May.

Adding pork to international security agreements

Kjønnøy’s demand for the new beacons has set back the signing of the contract to remove the radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel for five months. Finnmark officials say the beacons are necessary to ease the passage of nuclear waste hauling ships like the Rossita, Imandra and Serebryanka.

Bøhmer said Kjønnøy walked away from signing the agreement in May over its lack of €2.6 million in funding for the beacon project. The new contract is scheduled to be signed on Monday, September 28, and Bøhmer, who is privy to the negotiations, said it would include funding for the beacons.

Bøhmer said Kjønnøy has been persistent about additional navigation infrastructure because it steers a lot of investment in Finnmark’s direction.

To accommodate the inclusion of €2.6 million worth of apparently superfluous beacons, spent nuclear fuel will be leaving Andreyeva Bay in 2019 instead of 2017, which will have further ripple effects on the base’s wider remediation.

“By refusing to sign the contract in May, Finnmark officials lost an entire summer period during which the project could have moved forward,” said Bøhmer.

rossita leaving port in Italy The Rossita, an Italian-built ship given to Russia for nuclear waste transport. (Source: Courtesty of the Barents Observer)

As the harsh Arctic winter begins to close in, he added, adding the new infrastructure to even install the beacons will be impossible until the weather clears in Spring of 2016.

”It’s losing everyone a lot of time on an urgent issue,” said Bøhmer.

The Barents Observer confirmed Bøhmer’s remarks, reporting the new beacons wouldn’t be installed until 2017 at the earliest.

Finnmark expects the beacons

Bellona attempted several times to reach Kjønnøy by telephone and email for comment on the delay he is imposing – to the apparent benefit to his County – but no answers were returned by Finnmark officials by press time.

Kjønnøy, however, confirmed earlier to the Barents Observer that he wants to see the navigation beacons in the agreement he’s due to sign on Monday.

“It is our position that the agreed investments in the shipping lane must be completed before shipment [of spent fuel and radioactive waste] take places,” he says.

beacon locations Proposed placement of navigation beacons Norway will pay for, as shown in a slide show presentation. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Barents Observer) Click to expand

Bankroll for cleanup already in the red

It’s clear that the work ahead will face more challenges, said Bøhmer.

In February, Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin published a report revealing that current funding plans for Andreyeva Bay cleanup are short by $1.5 billion – and that if the money isn’t found soon, the radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel could simply be left where it is.

The now decrepit base was built in the 1960s as a storage point for spent nuclear fuel from the Soviet Union’s first nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin.

As the Russian Navy’s needs for spent nuclear storage space bloomed in the 1970s and 1980s, submarines began offloading it at Andreyeva Bay. Nikitin has said the spent fuel from some 100 submarines fill the storage units at the old base.

The base also stores an unknown quantity of damaged uranium rods, said the Barents Observer. Their shoddy shape, as well as radiation levels within storage tanks will pose special hazards demanding as-yet-to-be-devised methods for dealing with the radioactive cast offs once removal work begins.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no