Until it's not too late: how will Russia clean up the Arctic from the radioactive waste

Until it's not too late: how will Russia clean up the Arctic from the radioactive waste
Until it's not too late: how will Russia clean up the Arctic from the radioactive waste
13 May 2020, 16:16
Russia has serious concerns about the environmental situation in the Far North of the country and is ready to take the most serious steps to solve some of the most pressing environmental problems in the region.

At the disposal of the Belonna Ecological Legal Center were draft documents that provided for specific measures to clean the Arctic zone of Russia from sunken (or flooded) radioactive objects.

Victor Kuzovkov

According to these projects, by 2030, the state, through the efforts of government agencies, joint-stock companies with state participation and completely private contractors, plans to raise from the bottom of the sea and bury 7 large facilities that pose the greatest threat from the point of view of environmental safety.

We are talking about the nuclear submarines K-159, K-27, the reactor compartments of the nuclear submarines K-11, K-19, K-140, as well as the on-screen assembly of the atomic icebreaker Lenin. In total, 17 thousand potentially dangerous objects are located at the bottom of the Barents and Kara Seas. But it is these 6 objects that contain 90% of all potential radioactive releases. This work will cost, taking into account the survey, design surveys and recovery, 278,590,000 euros - a pretty serious amount. But if we remember that in the event of depressurization of the entire facility, the K-159 nuclear submarine, a ban on fishing in the Barents Sea could cost our fishermen 120 million euros per month, the above amounts no longer seem wasteful.

It is the K-159 submarine and the K-27 submarines that are the prime candidates for lifting and dismantling. The situation there is really complicated, and the possible amount of emissions is comparable, if not with Chernobyl, then with any other major accident at a nuclear power plant. For example, a nuclear reactor was installed on the K-27 nuclear submarine, in which liquid metal was used as a coolant. This is a very advanced technology from the point of view of ensuring the combat effectiveness of the boat, but from an environmental point of view, it turned out, to put it mildly, "not very".

At the time of the withdrawal of the K-27 boat from the fleet, there was no such technology for disposal or long-term storage of such waste. Therefore, they decided to simply flood the boat, having previously sealed the nuclear power plant with furfural. However, a survey conducted on a boat showed that the sealing was not very reliable. And getting inside the water compartment can trigger a self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

Such a perspective cannot be ignored either by environmentalists or by the state. That is why the work on these two boats is absolutely priority - this is prompted by the scale of a possible disaster, and a certain urgency, because an examination of the objects showed their unsatisfactory condition.

It should be noted that the practice of flooding nuclear waste and facilities containing them was widely used in the fifties and eighties. So, only Russia from 1959 to 1992 was flooded 18 thousand (!) Of such objects. At that time, when nuclear waste disposal technologies, if they existed, were only "on paper", such a method of disposing of nuclear waste seemed quite rational. Partially they were flooded at a certain distance from the coast and inhabited places, and partially they were stored at the piers, in specially designated bays, where in the nineties one could observe dozens of hulls of disabled nuclear submarines, sealed cut out reactor blocks and the like "gifts from the past ". The problem of waste stored at the piers was partially solved in the past decades, including at the expense of our “potential adversaries”. But before the flooded objects it comes only now ...

There are many other objects in the Russian segment of the Arctic that pose the potential danger of severe nuclear pollution of the territory. You don’t have to go far for examples, just remember the 569th coastal technical base of the Northern Fleet in Andreev Bay and the accident that happened there in 1982. Then, recall, about 700 thousand tons of highly radioactive water flowed into the Barents Sea, and this is one of the largest accidents of this kind in both Russian and world history.

Partly the decisions taken to raise radioactive objects from the bottom of the Barents and Kara Seas were the result of an international conference held in Moscow on December 13, 2019. The objective of the conference was to discuss the project “NS / 2013 /MC.04/13 and assess the economic feasibility and prepare for the implementation of the Action Plan for the Safe Handling / Disposal of Flooded Radioactive Objects in the North Seas”. This project was developed with the funding of the European Commission by an international consortium with the participation of the Institute for the Safe Development of Nuclear Energy of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBRAE RAS).

In fact, it was then that the pre-design study of the entire list of necessary work on the lifting and disposal of potentially dangerous objects took place. At that time, the forum participants noted that international cooperation aimed at cleaning up the Russian North from nuclear waste can be considered very successful: modernization of production at shipyards in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions, the infrastructure of the SNF handling facility in Gremikha, the long-term storage facility for reactor compartments and regional center for air conditioning and long-term storage of radioactive waste in Saida Guba. This allows us to hope that the implementation of the new program will be successful, and Russia will be able to get rid of the time-lapse mines laid during the Cold War years, and dramatically, almost ten times, reduce the level of nuclear threat in the Russian sector of the Arctic.

The latter is especially relevant against the background of growing economic activity in the region. Melting of polar ice suggests a significant increase in cargo turnover along the Northern Sea Route. In addition, the region’s fish resources will become more accessible. The development of hydrocarbons in the Kara Sea and further east is very likely, which can also attract investment and a rather large number of people involved in these projects.

Indeed, what in Soviet times seemed a completely inaccessible outback, now ceases to be so. Many of the mentioned objects are flooded in the area of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where for many years human activity was reduced only to ensuring the functioning of a nuclear testing ground and weather stations. Now this is potentially one of their rather busy transport routes, which freight carriers all over the world can use, for the benefit of all of Russia. But it is clear that any major nuclear accident in the region will put an end to the hopes of Russia to capitalize on the emerging opportunities of a new transport artery.

It is gratifying to note that similar work continues in the Far East, where there are enough of its problems with spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste. In particular, in 2014, in the coastal bay of Razboinik, a workshop for cleaning and painting reactor compartments was built. Over the past years, work was done to clean and paint 55 reactor compartments of disabled nuclear submarines. And do not be fooled by the peaceful word “painting” - in this case, painting is the most important step in the corrosion protection of the reactor unit, and we are talking about really advanced technologies, and not about Uncle Vasya with a spray gun.

In 2019, a delegation of inspectors from Japan, at the expense of which the workshop was built, conducted a final inspection at the facility. They concluded that the funds were used for their intended purpose and spent with high return. This means that further financing by the Japanese side of joint projects in the Russian Far East will continue, which is clearly positive news for all Russians.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to clean up the Russian North and Far East from nuclear waste. This is the problem of coastal storage facilities, many of which are morally and physically outdated, and other flooded objects, albeit less radioactive, but still pose a serious threat to shipping and human activities.

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