Russia facing huge problem to recover radioactive sunken nuclear reactors, but Putin still plans new ones in the Arctic

Russia’s ‘slow-motion Chernobyl’ at sea, FUTURE PLANET | OCEANS By Alec Luhn, 2nd September 2020 ……….

Minimising risk

Russia, Norway and other countries whose fishing boats ply the bountiful waters of the Barents Sea have now found themselves with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Although a 2014 Russian-Norwegian expedition to the K-159 wreck that tested the water, seafloor and animals like a sea centipede did not find radiation above background levels, an expert from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute said at the time that a reactor containment failure “could happen within 30 years of sinking in the best case and within 10 years at the worst”. That would release radioactive caesium-137 and strontium-90, among other isotopes.

While the vast size of the oceans quickly dilutes radiation, even very small levels can become concentrated in animals at the top of the food chain through “bioaccumulation” – and then be ingested by humans. But economic consequences for the Barents Sea fishing industry, which provides the vast majority of cod and haddock at British fish and chip shops, “may perhaps be worse than the environmental consequences”, says Hilde Elise Heldal, a scientist at Norway’s Institute of Marine Research.

According to her studies, if all the radioactive material from the K-159’s reactors were to be released in a single “pulse discharge”, it would increase Cesium-137 levels in the muscles of cod in the eastern Barents Sea at least 100 times. (As would a leak from the Komsomolets, another sunken Soviet submarine near Norway that is not slated for lifting.) That would still be below limits set by the Norwegian government after the Chernobyl accident, but it could be enough to scare off consumers. More than 20 countries continue to ban Japanese seafood, for instance, even though studies have failed to find dangerous concentrations of radioactive isotopes in Pacific predatory fishes following the Fukushima nuclear power plant release in 2011. Any ban on fishing in the Barents and Kara seas could cost the Russian and Norwegian economies €120m ($140m; £110m) a month, according to a European Commission feasibility study about the lifting project.

There is no ship in the world capable of lifting the K-159, so a special salvage vessel would have to be built

But an accident while raising the submarine, on the other hand, could suddenly jar the reactor, potentially mixing fuel elements and starting an uncontrolled chain reaction and explosion. That could boost radiation levels in fish 1,000 times normal or, if it occurred on the surface, irradiate terrestrial animals and humans, another Norwegian study found. Norway would be forced to stop sales of products from the Arctic such as fish and reindeer meat for a year or more. The study estimated that more radiation could be released than in the 1985 Chazhma Bay incident, when an uncontrolled chain reaction during refuelling of a Soviet submarine near Vladivostok killed 10 sailors.

Amundsen argued that the risk of such a criticality excursion with the K-159 or K-27 was low and could be minimised with proper planning, as it was during the removal of high-risk spent fuel from Andreyev Bay.

“In that case we do not leave the problem for future generations to solve, generations where the knowledge of handling such legacy waste may be very limited,” he says.

The safety and transparency of Russia’s nuclear industry has often been questioned, though, most recently when Dutch authorities concluded that radioactive iodine-131 detected over northern Europe in June originated in western Russia. The Mayak reprocessing facility that received the spent fuel from Andreyev Bay by train has a troubled history going back to the world’s then-worst nuclear disaster in 1957. Rosatom continues to deny the findings of international experts that the facility was the source of a radioactive cloud of ruthenium-106 registered over Europe in 2017.

While the K-159 and K-27 need to be raised, Rashid Alimov of Greenpeace Russia has reservations. “We are worried about the monitoring of this work, public participation and the transport [of spent fuel] to Mayak,” he says.

Custom mission

Raising a submarine is a rare feat of engineering. The United States spent $800m (£610m) in an attempt to lift another Soviet submarine, the diesel-powered K-129 that carried several nuclear missiles, from 16,400ft (5,000m) in the Pacific Ocean, under the guise of a seabed mining operation. In the end, they only managed to bring a third of the submarine to the surface, leaving the CIA with little usable intelligence.

That was the deepest raise in history. The heaviest was the Kursk. To bring the latter 17,000-tonne missile submarine up from 350ft (108m) below the Barents Sea, the Dutch companies Mammoet and Smit International installed 26 hydraulically cushioned lifting jacks on a giant barge and cut 26 holes in the submarine’s rubber-coated steel hull with a water jet operated by scuba divers. On 8 October 2001, rushing to beat the winter storm season after four months of nerve-wracking work and delays, steel grippers fitted in the 26 holes lifted the Kursk from the seabed in 14 hours, after which the barge was towed to a dry dock in Murmansk.

At less than 5,000 tonnes, the K-159 is smaller than the Kursk, but even before it sank its outer hull was “as weak as foil”, according to Bellona. It has since been embedded in 17 years’ worth of silt. A hole in the bow would seem to rule out pumping it full of air and raising it with balloons, as has been previously suggested. At a conference of European Bank of Reconstruction and Development donors in December, a Rosatom representative said there was no ship in the world capable of lifting it, so a special salvage vessel would have to be built.

That will increase the estimated cost of €278m ($330m; £250m) to raise the six most radioactive objects. Donors are discussing Russia’s request to help finance the project, said Balthasar Lindauer, director of nuclear safety at EBRD.

“There’s consensus something needs to be done there,” he says. Any such custom-built vessel would likely need a bevy of specialised technologies such as bow and aft thrusters to keep it positioned precisely over the wreck.

But in August, Grigoriev told a Rosatom-funded website that one plan the company was considering would involve a pair of barges fitted with hydraulic cable jacks and secured to deep-sea moorings. Instead of steel grippers like the ones inserted into the holes in the Kursk, giant curved pincers would grab the entire hull and lift it up between the barges. A partially submersible scow would be positioned underneath, then brought to the surface along with the submarine and finally towed to port. The K-27 and K-159 could both be recovered this way, he said.

One of three engineering firms working on proposals for Rosatom is the military design bureau Malachite, which drafted a project to raise the K-159 in 2007 that “was never realised due to a lack of money”, according to its lead designer. This year the bureau has begun updating this plan, an employee tells Future Planet in the lobby of Malachite’s headquarters in St Petersburg. Many questions remain, however.

“What condition is the hull in? How much of force can it handle? How much silt has built up? We need to survey the conditions there,” the employee says, before the head of security arrives to break up our conversation.

Nuclear paradox

Removing the six radioactive objects fits in with an image Putin as crafted as a defender of the fragile Arctic environment. In 2017, he inspected the results of an operation to remove 42,000 tonnes of scrap metal from the Franz Josef Land archipelago as part of a “general clean-up of the Arctic”. He has spoken about environmental preservation at an annual conference for Arctic nations. And on the same day in March 2020 that he issued his draft decree about the sunken objects, he signed an Arctic policy that lists “protecting the Arctic environment and the native lands and traditional livelihood of indigenous peoples” as one of six national interests in the region.

“For Putin, the Arctic is part of his historic legacy. It should be well-protected, bring real benefits and be clean,” said Dmitry Trenin, head of the think tank Carnegie Centre Moscow.

Yet while pursuing a “clean” Arctic, the Kremlin has also been backing Arctic oil and gas development, which accounts for the majority of shipping on the Northern Sea Route. State-owned Gazprom built one of two growing oil and gas clusters on the Yamal peninsula, and this year the government cut taxes on new Arctic liquified natural gas projects to 0% to tap into some of the trillions of dollars of fossil fuel and mineral wealth in the region.

And even as Putin cleans up the Soviet nuclear legacy in the far north, he is building a nuclear legacy of his own. A steady march of new nuclear icebreakers and, in 2019, the world’s only floating nuclear power plant has again made the Arctic the most nuclear waters on the planet.

Meanwhile, the Northern Fleet is building at least eight submarines and has plans to construct several more, as well as eight missile destroyers and an aircraft carrier, all of them nuclear-powered. It has also been testing a nuclear-powered underwater drone and cruise missile. In total, there could be as many as 114 nuclear reactors in operation in the Arctic by 2035, almost twice as many as today, a 2019 Barents Observer study found.

This growth has not gone without incident. In July 2019, a fire on a nuclear deep-sea submersible near Murmansk almost caused a “catastrophe of a global scale,” an officer reportedly said at the funeral of the 14 sailors killed. The next month, a “liquid-fuel reactive propulsion system” exploded during a test on a floating platform in the White Sea, killing two of those involved and briefly spiking radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk.

“The joint efforts of the international community including Norway and Russia after breakup of the Soviet Union, using taxpayer money to clean up nuclear waste, was a good investment in our fisheries,” says The Barents Observer’s Nilsen. “But today there are more and more politicians in Norway and Europe who think it’s a really big paradox that the international community is giving aid to secure the Cold War legacy while it seems Russia is giving priority to building a new Cold War.”

As long as the civilian agency Rosatom is tasked with clean-up, the Russian military has little incentive to slow down this nuclear spree, Nilsen notes.

“Who is going to pay for the clean-up of those reactors when they are not in use anymore?” he asks. “That is the challenge with today’s Russia, that the military don’t have to think what to do with the very, very expensive decommissioning of all this.”

So while the coming nuclear clean-up is set to be the largest of its kind in history, it may turn out to be just a prelude to what’s needed to deal with the next wave of nuclear power in the Arctic…………….

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