Russia’s ‘slow-motion Chernobyl’ at sea
Beneath some of the world’s busiest fisheries, radioactive submarines from the Soviet era lie disintegrating on the seafloor. Decades later, Russia is preparing to retrieve them.
With a draft decree published in March, President Vladimir Putin set in motion an initiative to lift two Soviet nuclear submarines and four reactor compartments from the silty bottom, reducing the amount of radioactive material in the Arctic Ocean by 90%. First on the list is Lappa’s K-159.
The message, which comes before Russia’s turn to chair the Arctic Council next year, seems to be that the country is not only the preeminent commercial and military power in the warming Arctic, but also a steward of the environment. The K-159 lies just outside of Murmansk in the Barents Sea, the richest cod fishery in the world and also an important habitat of haddock, red king crab, walruses, whales, polar bears and many other animals.
At the same time, Russia is leading another “nuclearification” of the Arctic with new vessels and weapons, two of which have already suffered accidents.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union built more than 400 nuclear-powered submarines, a “silent service” that gave the adversaries a way to retaliate even if their missile silos and strategic bombers had been taken out in a sudden first strike. Just 60 miles (97km) from the border with Nato member Norway, the Arctic port of Murmansk and surrounding military bases became the centre of the USSR’s nuclear navy and icebreakers, as well as their highly radioactive spent fuel.
After the Iron Curtain fell, the consequences came to light. For instance, at Andreyeva Bay, where 600,000 tonnes of toxic water leaked into the Barents Sea from a nuclear storage pool in 1982, the spent fuel from more than 100 submarines was kept partly in rusty canisters under the open sky. Fearing contamination, Russia and Western countries including Britain embarked on a sweeping clean-up, spending nearly £1bn ($1.3bn) to decommission and dismantle 197 Soviet nuclear submarines, dispose of strontium batteries from 1,000 navigation beacons and began removing fuel and waste from Andreyeva Bay and three other dangerous coastal sites.
As in other countries, however, Soviet nuclear waste was also dumped at sea, and now the focus has shifted there. A 2019 feasibility study by a consortium including British nuclear safety firm Nuvia found 18,000 radioactive objects in the Arctic Ocean, among them 19 vessels and 14 reactors.