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Russia’s underwater nuclear graveyard- the danger in the Arctic

Sunken Soviet Submarines Threaten Nuclear Catastrophe in Russia’s Arctic, Moscow Times. by Matthew Bodner Nov. 13 2014 While Russia’s nuclear bombers have recently set the West abuzz by probing NATO’s air defenses, a far more certain danger currently lurks beneath the frigid Arctic waters off Russia’s northern coast — a toxic boneyard for Soviet nuclear ships and reactors whose containment systems are gradually wearing out.

Left to decay at the bottom of the ocean, the world is facing a worst case scenario described as “an Arctic underwater Chernobyl, played out in slow motion,” according to Thomas Nilsen, an editor at the Barents Observer newspaper and a member of a Norwegian watchdog group that monitors the situation.


According to a joint Russian-Norwegian report issued in 2012, there are 17,000 containers of nuclear waste, 19 rusting Soviet nuclear ships and 14 nuclear reactors cut out of atomic vessels at the bottom of the Kara Sea.

For extra historical details see: Soviet Nuclear Submarine Wrecks at Bottom of Arctic Ocean (Video)

When the Soviets first began dumping the spent nuclear fuel, the disposal method was standard practice across the globe.

“Most nuclear states had similar practices before the early 1970s,” including the U.S. navy, Dr. Eugene Miasnikov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental studies told The Moscow Times.

But while other nations abandoned the practice of dumping radioactive waste at sea, the Soviet Union continued to do so until its collapse in 1991, and  did so in larger volumes than other nuclear powers.

Dr. Nils Bohmer, the managing director of the Bellona Foundation — a prominent Norwegian environmental NGO that works Arctic nuclear waste issues — explains this discrepancy by the fact that the Soviet navy experienced significantly more nuclear incidents than anyone else. Some of the thousands of containers have already shown signs of leakage, according to Nilsen of the Barents Observer. But the threat posed by these small objects pales in comparison with the spent reactor fuel housed in the rusting carcasses of three Soviet-era nuclear submarines and a number of individual reactor compartments torn from their original vessels and dropped in the ocean.

“Counted in radioactivity, you could say that one single reactor compartment with spent nuclear fuel inside contains much more radioactivity than all the thousands of containers combined,” Nilsen said.

Because their hulls are thick, the reactor compartments won’t rust as quickly as the containers, but they will eventually rust open and their cargo — spent uranium fuel — is of great concern.

K-27 — The Biggest Threat

  • The experts polled by The Moscow Times agreed the greatest and most immediate environmental threat posed by Soviet nuclear dumping comes from the carcass of the K-27 Soviet nuclear submarine.

    The K-27 was sunk in the early 1980s after the Soviets tried to tame its dangerous reactors for a decade before sinking it in the Kara Sea.

    The Bellona Foundation’s Bohmer, a nuclear physicist, said the K-27’s two experimental liquid-metal cooled reactors pose a significant threat to the Arctic ecosystem. If the reactor’s casing fails and exposes its highly enriched uranium fuel to the water, it may go critical, a 2012 Norwegian government report on the submarine said.

    In the case of a nuclear reaction, this does not mean that a nuclear explosion may take place in the Kara Sea, but instead create a Chernobyl-like event in which super-hot nuclear fuel will escape its reactor and emit massive levels of radiation into the environment.

    Beyond the Kara Sea, there are at least two more Soviet nuclear submarines with dangerous reactors. The K-159 in the Barents Sea and the K-278 in the Norwegian Sea. The K-278, also known as the Komsomolets, is considered to have settled too deep for salvage.

    The K-159 went down in 2003 while it was being towed to the town of Polyarny — home of Russia’s primary shipyard used for servicing and decommissioning nuclear powered vessels — for dismantling. Nine sailors died trying to keep it afloat when a storm hit, ripping off makeshift pontoons welded to the side to ensure the porous rusting hull didn’t sink en route. Estimates place around 800 kilograms of spent uranium fuel aboard the K-159, according to Bellona…………….

Russia’s Next Steps

  • The Moscow Times was unable to reach state nuclear agency Rosatom or the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry or clarification on their position, characterization of the ecological threat, and plans to raise the submarines……..
  • The Bellona Foundation estimates that the first incidents may begin taking place around 2020 or, in the best-case scenario, 2030…..

November 15, 2014 - Posted by | oceans, Russia, safety, wastes

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