Radioactive time bombs to be recovered by 2030 | Polarjournal
On August 12, 2000, the “Kursk” took part in a manoeuvre of the Russian Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea. A fire that broke out in the torpedo room caused the warheads to explode and the outer hull of the submarine to burst. Due to penetrating water, the “Kursk” was unable to manoeuvre and sank to a depth of 108 metres. The “Kursk” was lifted by the Dutch companies Mammoet and Smit Internationale on October 8, 2001 and subsequently brought to Roslyakovo and scrapped. (Photo: Archive)

Russia’s nuclear corporation Rosatom has announced the date for the recovery of the K-159 submarine for 2030. The wreck of the K-27, a submarine sunk in the Kara Sea in 1982, is also to be recovered by this date.

Since this spring, Russia has taken over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Now, finally, the need to recover the dangerous nuclear remains from the seabed has been highlighted. Russia has also actively advocated the removal of nuclear waste in its northern regions in several international forums.

Divers cut metal parts of the K-27’s fuselage in September 2021 (Photo: Russian Geographical Society).

Submarine K-27

The keel of the submarine K-27 was laid in 1958 in Severodvinsk. This was an experimental boat that had two liquid metal cooled reactors instead of the normal pressurized water reactors. It was intended for testing the new type of nuclear reactor and its construction was carried out under severe time pressure. The K-27 was launched in 1962, its commissioning took place at the end of October 1963.

In 1966-1967 the submarine was repaired several times because of problems with the reactors. On May 24, 1968, a reactor accident occurred during testing that exposed the crew to a large dose of radiation, killing nine sailors from radiation sickness. In 1979 the boat was decommissioned from the Navy and in 1982 it was sunk in Stepovogo Bay, with its two spent nuclear fuel-filled reactors off the coast of Novaya Zemlya at a depth of about 30 meters.

During an unsuccessful attempt to tow the submarine K-159 to the Nerpa shipyard for disposal, it sank on 30 August 2003 and now lies at a depth of 239 meters on the bottom of the Barents Sea. This is one of the last pictures before the sinking. (Photo: Archive)

The K-159 submarine was commissioned by the Navy in 1963 and retired from the fleet on May 30, 1989. In total, it covered more than 212,000 nautical miles during its service.

Without further action, the submarine was anchored at the Gremicha Naval Base, on the east coast of the Kola Peninsula. Even the nuclear fuel was not removed.

Since the K-159 submarine was in poor condition, it was to be towed to the Nerpa shipyard for disposal. The plan failed. Now it lies at the bottom of the Barents Sea near the island of Kildin at a depth of 239 metres. During the unsuccessful towing manoeuvre seven of the crew sank, two others were recovered dead, one seaman survived.

Researchers have been monitoring the wreck ever since, fearing that radioactivity from the two old nuclear reactors on board could contaminate fishing grounds in the Barents Sea. A joint Norwegian-Russian expedition investigated the site in 2014 and concluded that no substances have yet leaked from the reactors into the surrounding waters, although there are still 800 kg of nuclear fuel on board.

Today, the K-159 poses the greatest risk to commercial fisheries. The rusting wreck lies in one of the most important fishing grounds in the Barents Sea.

The icebreaker “Lenin” was the world’s first nuclear-powered ship and went into service in 1959 after a construction period of 2 years. After a loss of coolant in February 1965 and due to deformation of 60% of the fuel elements, it was decided to remove the fuel, control grid and control rods as a unit for disposal. In 1967 the scrap metal packed in containers was dumped into the sea in Tsivolki Bay / Novaya Zemlya. Today the “Lenin” stands as a museum ship in the harbour of Murmansk, of course ‘nuclear-free’. (Image: Heiner Kubny)

Out of sight – out of mind

During the mentality in Soviet times “out of sight – out of mind”, the Kara Sea seemed logical. Most of the year this area was ice covered and there was no commercial activity either. Thus, the eastern part of Novaya Zemlya became the dumping ground for nuclear waste.

In addition to the complete submarine K-27, the reactors of the submarines K-11, K-19 and K-140 and the spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the icebreaker Lenin lie on the bottom of the Kara Sea.

The catalog of waste dumped at sea by the Soviets includes about 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships carrying radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, including five still containing spent nuclear fuel, and 735 other radioactively contaminated heavy machines, according to Bellona documents.

The decline in sea ice, drilling for oil and gas, and increased shipping finally brought about a change in thinking.

The “Kursk” was the first nuclear-powered submarine to be recovered from great depths and then brought to Roslyakovo for disposal. (Image: Archive)

Difficult recovery

First of all, it must be ensured that the submarines do not leak or break apart during the lifting process.

Lifting a nuclear submarine off the ocean floor is nothing new. It’s difficult, but doable. On 8 October 2001, the Dutch companies Mammoet and Smit Internationale succeeded in lifting the wrecked submarine “Kursk” out of the Barents Sea.

With the help of a pontoon, the ocean-going tug Singapore towed the Kursk into the port of Roslyakovo. There the Kursk was brought into a floating dock and scrapped. The tower of the “Kursk” was cut off and stands today as a memorial in Murmansk.

According to the results of a feasibility study conducted by foreign partners, the cost of lifting the two submarines K-27 and K-279 “is about 300 million euros.

The European Union has already indicated that, because of Russia’s responsibility arising from the legacy of the Soviet Union, half of the costs will have to be borne by the Russian side and the other half by its international partners.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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