UPDATE: US nuclear submarine docks near Tromsø | Polarjournal

UPDATE: The USS “New Mexico”, a Virginia-class attack submarine of the US Navy docked at Tønsnes yesterday. This was reported by various Norwegian media yesterday. The 115-meter submarine was docked for logistical reasons and based on the NATO cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Norway, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian Armed Forces said. The submarine, which has been in service since 2008, poses no danger to the population. She said there was full confidence in US technology and controls. A no-fly zone has been established over the region and will be maintained for three days. Military forces were on site to guarantee the protection of the submarine and the population, she said. But with the latter, the visit is anything but welcome. Several local politicians and numerous citizens had protested against the submarine and the Norwegian government’s decision to allow nuclear-powered ships to dock. A majority had opposed it in a 2019 referendum. But the government in Oslo overruled the decision.

From Norwegian airfields in northern Norway, Hercules aircraft of the Norwegian Air Force undertake transport and training flights to the Barents region. This region is enormously important both economically and strategically for both Norway and Russia. Picture: Stefan Leimer

The Arctic will not be the same in the foreseeable future. It is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet due to greenhouse gases. Since global warming is melting the ice in the Arctic, the inhospitable region is being transformed into a potential economic area. New shipping routes that are navigable without icebreakers and the previously inaccessible raw material deposits arouse desires. The dispute over territorial issues and the extraction of raw materials will therefore increase. So it is not surprising that NATO and Russia are flexing their muscles in this region. And in the middle of it all lies Norway, NATO’s only Arctic partner with a direct border with Russia.

What worries NATO is Russia’s military build-up in the region. In recent years, Moscow has stationed medium-range missiles at numerous military bases. And on the archipelago of Franz-Josef-Land, MIG fighters and bombers can now land. NATO regularly records simulated air attacks on northern Norwegian radar installations or observes Russian submarines moving in formation past the Norwegian coast into the Atlantic. In response, NATO is conducting exercises in close proximity to the Norwegian-Russian border. The Norwegian Armed Forces write about this on their website, “To ensure freedom, security, predictability and stability in our part of the world, it is important that Norway’s allies and partner countries cooperate on a regular basis.»

Niklas Granholm (Deputy Director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency) describes NATO’s change in strategy as follows: “NATO is now focusing on so-called “offshore balancing“. Instead of stationing land forces, there is now an increased reliance on naval and air forces that can be moved and deployed quickly. This is the military strategy for the defense of Scandinavia.”

Submarines in the Tromsø area are not uncommon. The Norwegian government has now decided to build a base for nuclear submarines north of the port city and has invited the local population to an information meeting. Image: USS Seawolf in a fjord near Tromsø in August 2020, US Navy via Wiki Commons.

The new strategy also provides for nuclear-powered submarines to be allowed to enter the port of Grøtsund at Tønsnes, north of Tromsø, in the future. So far, only the harbour in Haakonsvern near Bergen has been used for such manoeuvres. Among the local population, however, the prospect – in the truest sense of the word – of nuclear-powered warships meets with less enthusiasm than it does among the Scandinavian governments. Frank Bakke-Jensen, the Norwegian Minister of Defence, however, says succinctly: “Calling nuclear-powered warships is in line with established practice and security-related requirements. The use of the industrial harbour does not cause any fixed costs for the Norwegian Armed Forces. They only have to ensure the guarding of the submarines during their stay.”

Norway regularly receives requests from British, French and American reactor-powered vessels. In recent years, the number of inquiries from military nuclear-powered vessels has increased significantly. From 10 to 15 calls per year a few years ago to currently 30 to 40 calls per year. Since the closure of Olavsvern outside Tromsø in 2009, the Haakonsvern naval base outside Bergen has been the only port of call for nuclear-powered vessels in Norway. In this context, it is important to know that nuclear submarines have already approached a bunker near Olavsvern south of Tromsø in the past. This base was once an essential part of NATO’s defense in northern Europe, but was closed in 2009 and sold to a Norwegian company in 2013. The underground bunkers are advertised on the internet as a hub for the oil and gas industry: 3000 square meters of deep sea quay and 124 available bedrooms are available. Russian ships, of all things, were among the first tenants. No wonder, the sale has meanwhile met with fierce criticism in Norway. Now that Moscow is increasing its presence in the Arctic, Norway could again make good use of the base in the far north.

North of Tromsø lies the small municipality of Tønsvik. According to the will of the Norwegian Minister of Defence, nuclear-powered submarines will be able to dock here and receive supplies in the future. Image: Michael Wenger via Google Earth

Due to the development of security policy in the north and the related demand for a port of call in northern Norway, the Armed Forces have requested that a port of call for nuclear-powered vessels be re-established at the industrial port of Tønsnes in Tromsø. In view of this decision, the Norwegian Armed Forces had to prepare a risk and weak point analysis. The crux of the matter is that the results of this investigation are not publicly available. Which makes the uncertainty grow among the population and further fuels the rumor mill. The municipality of Tromsø had rejected the request to host reactor-powered submarines back in 2019, but was overruled by the Norwegian government.

The new centre in Tønsvik is located close to Tromsø and in the immediate vicinity of UNN Hospital, the largest and most important university hospital in Northern Norway. In the event of a nuclear incident, the paradoxical situation could arise in which the hospital is evacuated on the one hand, but is required to admit the affected patients on the other. In 2019, a Russian trawler burned 500 meters from the hospital. Due to the heavy smoke, ventilation had to be stopped in the hospital and operations suspended. Subsequently, the emergency plans and processes were adapted. But a total evacuation of the entire hospital complex is still not planned, according to Marit Lind, the deputy director of UNN.

“As is well known, there is also nothing new about Allied reactor-driven ships calling at ports in the Tromsø region.”

Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norwegian Minister of Defence

Last Monday, May 3, the Ministry of Defence therefore invited residents of the municipalities of Tromsø, Karlsøy, Lyngen and Skjervøy to a public meeting. Among others, the Minister of Defence Frank Bakke-Jensen and political representatives of the region, the Directorate for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (DSA) were present at the information event. The aim of the meeting was to inform the population and to be available for questions. “I have great respect for the fact that the residents of Tromsø and the surrounding communities have felt unsafe and want clear answers,” the defense minister said in a summary the next day. “I hope that the public meeting has helped to reduce the uncertainty.”

For the Norwegian Armed Forces, observation of the Barents region is of the utmost importance. Because near the common border with Russia is the largest Russian submarine base. With reconnaissance aircraft such as the Orion P3, the Air Force regularly patrols Norwegian territorial waters in search of Russian submarines. Picture: Stefan Leimer

Even if the risk of an incident is generally considered to be small. The consequences of radioactivity leakage due to a nuclear accident would be devastating: dead and long-term contaminated people, massive damage to nature and the environment, and evacuation of settlements. Scenarios such as those still remembered “best” from Fukushima.
In the event of a nuclear incident on a military vessel, the armed forces are responsible for direct damage control on site. The local authorities are taking over the evacuation and fighting the pollution. It is not only about the immediate surroundings of Tromsø. Reactor-powered vessels and submarines do indeed pass through the areas of Karlsøy, Lyngen and Skervøy municipalities. However, these regions do not currently have measuring equipment or protective suits, nor do they have experience, competence and training in the field of nuclear disruption. However, the politicians in charge are aware of this and are now tackling these problems.

Most “visits” will continue to be conducted in open waters and will last only a few hours. Only when major replenishment and maintenance work or rest periods for the crew are required does the submarine enter port and remain there for several days. However, maintenance work on the reactors while in port is prohibited by the Norwegian authorities.

“By preparing the port of Grøtsund, we make it easier for allied ships to be present in the north. This is important for our security.”

Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norwegian Minister of Defence

One of the most important questions to the Minister of Defence was whether submarines that are in the fjord off Tromsø have nuclear weapons on board. In the documents made available on the Internet prior to the info event, reference is made to the so-called Bratteli Doctrine 2) of 1975: “Our requirement for foreign warships was and is that no nuclear weapons are carried on board. The Norwegian authorities expect both allies and other nuclear powers to respect this…”. In response, Frank Bakke-Jensen explains: “When the government decided to facilitate the call of allied nuclear-powered vessels at Grøtsund, the decision was made on the basis of decades of experience. Knowledge and experience show that it is unlikely that an accident would happen with such an allied ship at the quay. As is well known, there is also nothing new about allied nuclear-powered vessels calling at ports in the Tromsø area. Such ships regularly docked at Olavsvern for several decades. Some point out that it was a military port and therefore different, but the guard we will establish in Grøtsund will be at least as extensive as in Olavsvern. (…) I am therefore confident that Grøtsund will make a very positive contribution to our common security in the decades to come. We want our allies to train and exercise with us and in our immediate vicinity. In this way, they can prepare to support us if there is a need in a crisis situation. By preparing the port of Grøtsund, we make it easier for allied ships to be present in the north. This is important for our security.”

Whether the inhabitants of the region see it the same way?

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