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The horror of Russia’s nuclear submarines and nuclear trash dumped at sea

CTY Pisces – Photos of a Japanese midget submarine that was sunk off Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. There’s a hole at the base of the conning tower where an artillery shell penetrated the hull, sinking the sub and killing the crew. Photos courtesy of Terry Kerby, Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory. August 2003.

The Terrifying History of Russia’s Nuclear Submarine Graveyard, Popular Mechanics The equivalent of six-and-a-half Hiroshimas lies just beneath the ocean’s surface. Cory Graff , 17 Jan 2021, In the icy waters north of Russia, discarded submarine nuclear reactors lie deteriorating on the ocean floor—some still fully fueled. It’s only a matter of time before sustained corrosion allows seawater to eat its way to the abandoned uranium, causing an uncontrolled release of radioactivity into the Arctic.

For decades, the Soviet Union used the desolate Kara Sea as their dumping grounds for nuclear waste. Thousands of tons of nuclear material, equal to nearly six and a half times the radiation released at Hiroshima, went into the ocean. The underwater nuclear junkyard includes at least 14 unwanted reactors and an entire crippled submarine that the Soviets deemed proper decommissioning too dangerous and expensive. Today, this corner-cutting haunts the Russians. A rotting submarine reactor fed by an endless supply of ocean water might re-achieve criticality, belching out a boiling cloud of radioactivity that could infect local seafood populations, spoil bountiful fishing grounds, and contaminate a local oil-exploration frontier.

“Breach of protective barriers and the detection and spread of radionuclides in seawater could lead to fishing restrictions,” says Andrey Zolotkov, director of Bellona-Murmansk, an international non-profit environmental organization based in Norway. “In addition, this could seriously damage plans for the development of the Northern Sea Route—ship owners will refuse to sail along it.”

News outlets have found more dire terms to interpret the issue. The BBC raised concerns of a “nuclear chain reaction” in 2013, while The Guardian described the situation as “an environmental disaster waiting to happen.” Nearly everyone agrees that the Kara is on the verge of an uncontrolled nuclear event, but retrieving a string of long-lost nuclear time bombs is proving to be a daunting challenge.

Nuclear submarines have a short lifespan considering their sheer expense and complexity. After roughly 20-30 years, degradation coupled with leaps in technology render old nuclear subs obsolete. First, decades of accumulated corrosion and stress limit the safe-dive depth of veteran boats. Sound-isolation mounts degrade, bearings wear down, and rotating components of machinery fall out of balance, leading to a louder noise signature that can be more easily tracked by the enemy. …….

The Soviet Union and Russia built the world’s largest nuclear-powered navy in the second half of the 20th century, crafting more atom-powered subs than all other nations combined. At its military height in the mid-1990s, Russia boasted 245 nuclear-powered subs, 180 of which were equipped with dual reactors and 91 of which sailed with a dozen or more long-range ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads………

A majority of the Soviet’s nuclear submarine classes operated from the Arctic-based Northern Fleet, headquartered in the northwestern port city of Murmansk. The Northern Fleet bases are roughly 900 kilometers west of the Kara Sea dumping grounds. A second, slightly smaller hub of Soviet submarine power was the Pacific Fleet, based in and around Vladivostok on Russia’s east coast above North Korea. Additional Soviet-era submarines sailed from bases in the Baltic and Black Seas.

…….. the disposal of these submarines posed more problems than previous conventional vessels. Before crews could chop the vessels apart, the subs’ reactors and associated radioactive materials had to be removed, and the Soviets didn’t always do this properly.

Mothballed nuclear submarines pose the potential for disaster even before scrapping begins. In October of 1995, 12 decommissioned Soviet subs awaited disposal in Murmansk, each with fuel cells, reactors, and nuclear waste still aboard. When the cash-strapped Russian military didn’t pay the base’s electric bills for months, the local power company shut off power to the base, leaving the line of submarines at risk of meltdown. Military staffers had to persuade plant workers to restore power by threatening them at gunpoint.

The scrapping process starts with extracting the vessel’s spent nuclear fuel from the reactor core. The danger is immediate: In 1985, an explosion during the defueling of a Victor class submarine killed 10 workers and spewed radioactive material into the air and sea. Specially trained teams must separate the reactor fuel rods from the sub’s reactor core, then seal the rods in steel casks for transport and storage (at least, they seal the rods when adequate transport and storage is available—the Soviets had just five rail cars capable of safely transporting radioactive cargo, and their storage locations varied widely in size and suitability). Workers at the shipyard then remove salvageable equipment from the submarine and disassemble the vessel’s conventional and nuclear weapons systems. Crews must extract and isolate the nuclear warheads from the weapons before digging deeper into the launch compartment to scrap the missiles’ fuel systems and engines.

When it is time to dispose of the vessel’s reactors, crews cut vertical slices into the hull of the submarine and chop out the single or double reactor compartment along with an additional compartment fore and aft in a single huge cylinder-shaped chunk. Once sealed, the cylinder can float on its own for several months, even years, before it is lifted onto a barge and sent to a long-term storage facility.

But during the Cold War, nuclear storage in Soviet Russia usually meant a deep-sea dump job. At least 14 reactors from bygone vessels of the Northern Fleet were discarded into the Kara Sea. Sometimes, the Soviets skipped the de-fueling step beforehand, ditching the reactors with their highly radioactive fuel rods still intact.

According to the Bellona, the Northern Fleet also jettisoned 17,000 containers of hazardous nuclear material and deliberately sunk 19 vessels packed with radioactive waste, along with 735 contaminated pieces of heavy machinery. More low-level liquid waste was poured directly into the icy waters.

But during the Cold War, nuclear storage in Soviet Russia usually meant a deep-sea dump job. At least 14 reactors from bygone vessels of the Northern Fleet were discarded into the Kara Sea. Sometimes, the Soviets skipped the de-fueling step beforehand, ditching the reactors with their highly radioactive fuel rods still intact.

According to the Bellona, the Northern Fleet also jettisoned 17,000 containers of hazardous nuclear material and deliberately sunk 19 vessels packed with radioactive waste, along with 735 contaminated pieces of heavy machinery. More low-level liquid waste was poured directly into the icy waters.

Another submarine is perhaps a bigger risk for a radioactive leak. K-159, a November class, suffered a radioactive discharge accident in 1965 but served until 1989. After languishing in storage for 14 years, a 2003 storm ripped K-159 from its pontoons during a transport operation, and the battered hulk plunged to the floor of the Barents Sea, killing nine crewmen. The wreck lies at a depth of around 250 meters, most likely with its fueled and unsealed reactors open to the elements.

Russia has announced plans to raise the K-27, the K-159, and four other dangerous reactor compartments discarded in the Arctic. As of March 2020, Russian authorities estimate the cost of the recovery effort will be approximately $330 million.

The first target is K-159. But lifting the sunken sub back to the surface will take a specially built recovery vessel, one that does not yet exist. Design and construction of that ship is slated to begin in 2021, to be finished by the end of 2026. Now, in order to avoid an underwater Chernobyl, the Russians are beginning a terrifying race against the relentless progression of decay.  https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a34976195/russias-nuclear-submarine-graveyard/

January 18, 2021 - Posted by | oceans, Russia, wastes

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