Before Russia can expand ship traffic along its Northern Sea Route, the government must inspect and clean up its waterways. After all, the country wouldn’t want a ship ramming into a hidden radioactive submarine part.

Consequently, the rescue tug boat Neotrazimy has embarked on a 74-day expedition from Arkhangelsk, in western Russia, to Anadyr, situated on the Bering Sea. Representatives from the Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Response will inspect the seafloor for any potentially dangerous and radioactive objects. Along the way, the boat will also dock in Dudinka, Tiksi, Anadyr and Pevek, all Arctic ports. Deputy head of the firefighting department of the ministry, Maxim Vladimirov, told RIA Novosti (rough translation courtesy of Google Translate):

“The main objective of the forthcoming expedition is to study the state of potentially dangerous underwater objects buried in Tsivolki Bay and the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. There are many submerged objects that contain radioactive substances. First and foremost, we plan to thoroughly investigate the reactor assembly of nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin and its reactor compartment.”

The Lenin was a Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker which suffered two serious accidents whose consequences are still felt today in the form of environmental degradation. In 1965, the icebreaker was being repaired and refuelled when the reactor core overheated due to lack of cooling water. 60% of the fuel assemblies were damaged. Part of the reactor was placed into a special cask, held for two years onshore, and then unceremoniously dumped into Tsivolki Bay. Then again, in 1967, one of the icebreaker’s pipes leaked. Attempts to repair it led to irreversible damage of the reactor. Fortuitously, a new reactor was ready to be put in place, so the entire midsection of the icebreaker, complete with its reactor core, was dumped into the bay as well. Bellona, a Norwegian non-profit, provides a history of the Lenin here.

According to a paper prepared in September 1992 for the U.S. Department of Energy by D.J. Bradley, “Radioactive Contamination of the Arctic Region, Baltic Sea, and the Sea of Japan from Activities of the Former Soviet Union,” which quotes Sobsednik newspaper, the following are sites where nuclear waste has been deposited:

  1. “The Novaya Zemlya deep-sea trench – a cargo vessel with a damaged (submarine)reactor (1,700 curies [reportedto be 170,000 curies by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 23, 1992]), 1,450 submerged containers with radioactive waste, and a tanker with liquid radioactive waste.
  2. Neupokoyeva Bay – solid radioactive waste with an overall radioactivity of 3,400 curies.
  3. Tsivolki Bay – 4,750 containers of radioactive wastes, the lighter N. Bauman, the mid-section of the ice-breaker Lenin with three damaged reactors and crane assembly.
  4. Oga Bay – 850 containers of radioactive wastes.
  5. Stepovogc Bay – 1,850 containers of radioactive wastes and a damaged nuclear submarine containing two reactors with nuclear fuel still inside (sunk at a depth of 35-50 meters [Russiyskaya Gazeta, June 23, 1992]).
  6. Abrosimov Bay – 550 containers of radioactive wastes and sections of four damaged nuclear submarines (a total of eight reactors, three of which contain nuclear fuel).
  7. Blagopoluchiya Bay – 650 containers of radioactive wastes
  8. Techeniy Bay – a damaged reactor (without nuclear fuel) with an aggregate activity level of 1,856 curies.
  9. Open sea – 400 containers of radioactive wastes.
  10. Open sea – 250 containers of radioactive wastes
  11. The Cape Sukhoy Nos area – where the highest-yield atmospheric nuclear weapons tests were conducted; an off-limits area.
  12. The Matochkin Shar Channel area – location of the latest underground nuclear tests in tunnels; an off-limits area.
  13. Chernaya Guba area – location of the first underwater, above- ground, and initial underground (in emplacement hole) nuclear tests; the grave of the experimental ship Kit and the proposed burial site for the nuclear submarine Komsomolets (in the event it is raised); an off-limits area.
  14. Proposed site for a regional nuclear waste repository.
  15. The southwestern sector of the archipelago’s south island. This is an area proposed for the long-term program of nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya.”

In total, as many as 17,000 containers of nuclear waste may have also been heaved into the Barents and Kara Seas in Russia’s Arctic between 1984 and 1986. I’m working on creating a map of the watery nuclear graveyards.

Even outside those areas, the Russians have had the misfortune of finding more radioactive waste in their waters. This past June, thousands of miles west in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuana, the Russians discovered 10,000 World War II-era munitions aboard a sunken German ship near the town of Baltiisk in western Kaliningrad.

This post was corrected to reflect that the NS Lenin is an icebreaker, not a submarine.

News links

“Russia inspects dangerous objects along North East Passage,” Barents Observer

Categories: Environment Russia


Russians begin inspecting Northern Sea Route for radioactive waste

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