Arctic oil drilling threatens international radioactive contamination from old Soviet nuclear dump-sites

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Publish date: April 14, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

A Russian Academy of Sciences study indicates decades worth of nuclear reactor and radioactive waste dumping in the Kara Sea by the Russian Navy - as well as fallout from Soviet-era nuclear bomb test - could cause heightened levels of radioactive contamination when major Arctic oil drilling projects ramp up.

The study represent the latest in a string of event that show the massive oil drilling projects in the Arctic will compound the worries of oil spills with concerns over increased nuclear waste and possibilities of radioactive contamination.

Over the past two months, Gazprom, the Russian gas and oil Giant that will control the drilling and which countries get to take part, has announced its intentions to boost power resources in the Arctic area by using floating nuclear power plants and by building two new reactors at the aged Kola Nuclear Power plant.

Now, studies show that when the drill bits hit the ocean floor, there is the danger of disinterring a vast portion of the Soviet Union’s irresponsible nuclear legacy – written in radwaste and reactor chucked at sea – which threatens to contaminate at least a quarter of the world’s Arctic coastline.

According to the authors of the study who trawled the area of the Kara Sea by ship and counted dumped reactors and known underwater sites of radioactive contamination, the sites studied are fragilely safe – for the moment.

“We studied sediments with hydro location equipment, monitored radioactive contamination, and took samples to establish radioactive levels,” said Mikhail Flint, who was part of the Russian Academy of Sciences research team that has been mapping dumped reactors and sites of possible underwater contamination, in a description of the expedition he wrote for RIA Novosti.

But as a consequence of potential oil drilling in the Shotkman and other vaunted underwater gas and oil condensate fields, and the growing effects of climate change, which disturb the layers of ocean bottom silt that is currently containing much of the possible radioactive contamination, Russia and neighboring countries should be worried.

Flint said that oil development was a particular concern.

“The work may come close to (radioactive) dump sites, and it is important to establish precisely to which areas there must be no access,” he said.

While noting that the sites of possible radioactive contamination checked on the expedition revealed no alarming levels of radiation, there are other sites that remain unmapped.

Dumps should be constant worry to Norway and Russia

Flint said that Russia and neighboring countries should be troubled by the radioactive waste situation in the Kara Sea.

“Norway has grounds to be constantly worried about these dumps sites. But they pose the greatest danger to Russia,” he said.

“Currents in the eastern Arctic mostly flow from the west to the east, and any pollution spreads along the Russian coastline. But nothing is safe in the water, and other countries may also face the consequences of the degradation of radioactive waste on the Russian (continental) shelf.”

Digging for radioactive junk
According to Flint, the expedition for radioactive junk counted as many as 13 nuclear reactors that had been removed from nuclear submarines in the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet. They also charted sites where the Northern Fleet had dumped containers of radioactive waste prior to 1991.


In addition, they measured radiation from three reactors from the former flagship of the Soviet nuclear icebreaker fleet, the Lenin, which are buried in the western region of the Kara Sea.

Other areas of concern were those that fell in the path of nuclear weapons tests conducted on Novaya Zemlya, off the coast of Northern Russia.

In Soviet times, 138 land based, underground and underwater nuclear test explosions took place in the Arctic region. Soviet authorities attempted to cover fallout with special conservation and containment mixtures, but, said Flint, “everything has its shelf life,” indicating that these Soviet measures were in various states of failure.

The expedition took place aboard the workhorse Russia research vessel, the Mstislav Keldysh, from which scientists launched robotic submarines to map the ocean floor and take radiation readings.

Other causes for worry

Flint said his expedition not only rechecked sites that were determined to be secure by Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Services in the southern Kara Sea, but also northerly dumpsites in the Gulf of Currents and the Gulf of Prosperity, which have been insufficiently studied.

Besides oil exploration, consequences of climate change threaten to churn up and release radioactive contamination from these underwater nuclear navel dumpsites.

Flint said sediments isolate radiation, but these sediments can be easily disturbed by the friction of inverted icebergs – something that Fling said has not yet happened, but remains imminent as the polar ice cap melts.

The most dire threats emerging from the melting of polar waters, Flint underscored, was the gold rush mentality of oil companies to tap the estimated 3.8 trillion cubic metres of oil and gas that are believe to lie beneath Russia’s continental shelf.

One of the largest outstanding issues before any of this work inevitably begins is to study and map all nuclear dump-sites as accurately as possible to avoid piling one potential environmental disaster on top of another.

‘We must localize all (radioactive) objects, determine their condition, and establish how dangerous they are for the environment,” said Flint.