Not since Soviet days has more nuclear-powered icebreakers been operating at the same time in Arctic waters, the Barents Observer reported in the beginning of 2023. Russia has over the last few years put three brand new icebreakers of the Project 22220 class into operation. Two more are under construction in St. Petersburg and a sixth vessel got funding with a goal to put it into service by 2030 as a transport- and maintenance ship for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste removal from the country’s fleet of icebreakers.
This new service ship (Project 22770) will be nearly 160 meters long and carry its own cranes to lift in and out containers with spent nuclear fuel or fresh uranium fuel from the icebreaker reactors, either at Rosatom’s service base in Murmansk or in open sea anywhere along the Northern Sea Route. Typically, the uranium fuel is used in icebreaker reactors for 3-4 years before being replaced. The spent fuel elements are then taken out of the reactors and loaded over to special casks to the service vessel where they are stored for a few years before being loaded on land at Atomflot in Murmansk and later transported by train to Mayak in the South Urals for reprocessing.
The vessel could also serve Russia’s floating nuclear power plants (FNPP), like the “Akademik Lomonosov” which today provides electricity to Pevek or to any of the new FNPPs planned for the Arctic.
Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Arctic nuclear waste ship gets funding, The Barents Observer, Jan 11, 2023
“Having the exact coordinates for the dumped container with the nuclear reactors from K-19 submarine is undoubtedly good news,” says nuclear safety expert Andrey Zolotkov. Zolotkov hopes for risk assessments to be carried out soon with the aim to see how the nuclear reactors could be lifted out of the maritime environment and brought to a yard for safe decommissioning…More than 50 years have passed since the dumping.
In the so-called “White Book” on dumped nuclear objects, originally published by President Boris Yeltsin’s environmental advisor Alexei Jablokov, the dumping of the submarine’s two reactors is listed for the Abrosimova Bay on the east coast of the Kara Sea, but exact location hasn’t been confirmed.
It was in August 2021 that the the crew on “Akademik M. Keldysh” with the help of sonars and submersibles found the container. Both marine researchers, oceanology experts from Russia’s Academy of Science and representatives of the Ministry of Emergency Situations are working together in the expedition team.
K-19 is one of the most infamous nuclear-powered submarines sailing for the Soviet navy’s Northern Fleet. In July 1961 the reactor lost coolant after a leak in a pipe regulating the pressure to the primary cooling circuit. The reactor water started boiling causing overheating and fire. Crew members managed to extinguish the fire but had big problems fixing the leak in an effort to save the submarine from exploding. Many of them were exposed to high doses of radioactivity before being evacuated to a nearby diesel submarine sailing in the same area of the North Atlantic. Eight of the crew members who had worked on the leak died of radiation poisoning within a matter of days.
The submarine was towed to the Skhval shipyard (No. 10) in Polyarny. Later, the reactor compartment was cut out and a new installed. The two damaged reactors, still with spent nuclear fuel, were taken north to the Kara Sea and dumped. Keeping the heavily contaminated reactors at the shipyard was at the time not considered an option.
In the spring of 2021, Russia’s Foreign Ministry invited international experts from the other Arctic nations to a conference on how to recover sunken radioactive and hazardous objects dumped by the Soviet Union on the seafloor east of Novaya Zemlya. Moscow chairs the Arctic Council for the 2021-2023 period.
The two reactors from the K-19 submarine are not the only objects posing a risk to marine environment. In fact, no other places in the world’s oceans have more radioactive and nuclear waste than the Kara Sea. Reactors from K-11 and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the “Lenin” icebreaker are also dumped in the same sea. While mentality in Soviet times was «out of sight, out of mind», the Kara Sea seemed logical. Ice-covered most of the year, and no commercial activities. That is changing now with rapidly retreating sea ice, drilling for oil-, and gas, and increased shipping…Additional to the reactors, about 17,000 objects were dumped in the Kara Sea in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Expedition finds reactors 56 years after dumping, The Barents Observer, Sept. 2, 2021
Melting ice in the Arctic Ocean is bringing a centuries-old dream closer to reality for Russia: a shipping passage through its northern waters that could put it at the center of a new global trade shipping route…A host of issues remain, such as icebreaker escort tariffs, transit costs and navigational unpredictability in the Arctic Circle. But an opening of the passage (the Northern Sea Route-NSR) would put Russia at the center of a new global shipping route for energy supplies and cargo. Moscow says it has the right to restrict passage and set prices for transit, and the route would also give it an important bargaining chip in its ties with China—one of the biggest beneficiaries of the 3,500-mile long passage…
So far this year, traffic regulated by the Russian government is up 11% from the record 1,014 trips made in 2020….The traffic in 2020 was up more than 25% from 2019 with 33 million tons of cargo, oil and liquefied natural gas, and Moscow expects that number to grow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he wants cargo to double to 80 million tons by 2024.The State Atomic Energy Corporation, or Rosatom, which manages a fleet of nuclear icebreakers that can cut through ice up to 10-feet thick, is drafting plans to station personnel along the route, boost port infrastructure along the shipping lane to allow for loading, and provide navigational and medical aid for ships. Rosatom has already stationed one floating nuclear-power plant on the route, to help with onshore construction…
“There is a certain interest in the NSR from the Chinese Navy for strategic mobility to move troops between Pacific to Atlantic theaters,” said Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China relations at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. “And they do have this interest in establishing their presence on the Atlantic.”
Russia has already boosted its military presence in the Arctic and along the Northern Sea Route, but the U.S. says Moscow’s legal jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the waters where the Kremlin is working to develop the passage….Russian authorities are still determining the transparent tariff duties, both for transit and for icebreaker escorts along the passage, that are key to attracting both investment and cargo. Traffic on the route, however, is already guaranteed by Russia’s increasing production of Arctic oil and gas. The majority of vessels carry LNG from the port of Sabetta, where gas from Russian energy giant Novatek’s Yamal project is loaded for consumers in Europe or Asia. Crude from Rosneft’s planned Vostok oil field project will also be sent along the route when it comes onstream….
Excerpts from Thomas Grove, Melt Boosts Russia Shipping Arctic, WSJ, June 24, 2021
A mining firm has paid a record $2bn fine over a huge oil spill that caused one of Russia’s worst environmental disasters. Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, said it had paid the fine on March 10, 2021.The fuel spill in May 2021 saw 21,000 tonnes of diesel pour from one of the company’s storage tanks into rivers and lakes in Russia’s Arctic north…The penalty is the biggest ever issued for environmental damage in Russia, officials say.
How did the spill happen? The diesel oil began leaking on May 29, 2020. It is thought to have originated from a rusty storage tank at Norilsk Nickel’s power plant in Siberia. Investigators believe the tank near Norilsk sank because of melting permafrost which weakened its supports. The Arctic had seen weeks of unusually warm weather – widely believed to be a symptom of global warming – prior to the disaster. The oil contaminated the Ambarnaya river and surrounding subsoil before drifting about 20km (12 miles) north of Norilsk. It then entered Lake Pyasino, which flows to the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean. In total, the oil contaminated a 350 sq km (135 sq mile) area…
The clean-up could cost $1.5bn and take between five and 10 years…Norilsk is already a well-known pollution hotspot, because of contamination from the industry that dominates the city.
Excerpt from Norilsk Nickel: Mining firm pays record $2bn fine over Arctic oil spill, BBC, Mar. 10, 2021
Rosatom joined the Arctic Economic Council*in February 2021. Rosatom is a Russian state-owned corporation supplying about 20% of the country’s electricity. The corporation mainly holds assets in nuclear power and machine engineering and construction. In 2018, the Russian government appointed Rosatom to manage the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR grants direct access to the Arctic, a region of increasing importance for Russia due to its abundance of fossil fuels. Moreover, due to climate changes, the extraction of natural resources, oil and gas are easier than ever before.
Since Russia’s handover of NSR’s management, Rosatom’s emphasis on the use of nuclear power for shipping, infrastructure development and fossil fuel extraction is likely to become more prevalent in the Arctic region. Rosatom already operate the world’s first floating nuclear power plant in the Siberian port of Pevek and is the only company in the world operating a fleet of civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers…The company has numerous plans up its sleeves, among them to expand the fleet of heavy-duty nuclear icebreakers to a minimum of nine by 2035.
In 2018 the NATO alliance, joined by Sweden and Finland, held Trident Juncture, its largest exercise since the end of the cold war, in Norway. That involved the first deployment of an American aircraft-carrier in the Arctic Circle for three decades. Western warships have been frequent visitors since. On May 1, 2020 a “surface action group” of two American destroyers, a nuclear submarine, support ship and long-range maritime patrol aircraft, plus a British frigate, practised their submarine hunting skills in the Norwegian Sea.
Such drills are not unusual. But on May 4, 2020 some of those ships broke off and sailed further north into the Barents Sea, along with a third destroyer. Although American and British submarines routinely skulk around the area, to spy on Russian facilities and exercises covertly, surface ships have not done so in a generation. On May 7, 2020 Russia’s navy greeted the unwelcome visitors by announcing that it too would be conducting exercises in the Barents Sea—live-fire ones, in fact. On May 8, 2020… the NATO vessels departed.
It is a significant move. The deployment of destroyers which carry missile-defence systems and land-attack cruise missiles is especially assertive. After all, the area is the heart of Russian naval power, including the country’s submarine-based nuclear weapons. Russia’s Northern Fleet is based at Severomorsk on the Kola peninsula, to the east of Norway’s uppermost fringes.
Western navies are eager to show that covid-19 has not blunted their swords, at a time when America and France have each lost an aircraft-carrier to the virus. But their interest in the high north predates the pandemic. One purpose of the foray into the Barents Sea was “to assert freedom of navigation”, said America’s navy. Russia has been imposing rules on ships that wish to transit the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an Arctic passage between the Atlantic and Pacific that is becoming increasingly navigable as global warming melts ice-sheets . America scoffs at these demands, insisting that foreign warships have the right to pass innocently through territorial waters under the law of the sea. Although last week’s exercise did not enter the NSR, it may hint at a willingness to do so in the future.
On top of that, the Arctic is a growing factor in NATO defence policy. Russia has beefed up its Northern Fleet in recent years…Russian submarine activity is at its highest level since the cold war…Ten subs reportedly surged into the north Atlantic in October 2019 to test whether they could elude detection….Russia’s new subs are quiet and well-armed. As a result, NATO’s “acoustic edge”—its ability to detect subs at longer ranges than Russia—“has narrowed dramatically.”
Russia primarily uses its attack submarines to defend a “bastion”, the area in the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk where its own nuclear-armed ballistic-missile submarines patrol. A separate Russian naval force known as the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI, in its Russian acronym) might also target the thicket of cables that cross the Atlantic.
The challenge is a familiar one. For much of the cold war, NATO allies sought to bottle up the Soviet fleet in the Arctic by establishing a picket across the so-called GIUK gap, a transit route between Greenland, Iceland and Britain that was strung with undersea listening posts….The gap is now back in fashion and NATO is reinvesting in anti-submarine capabilities after decades of neglect. America has stepped up flights of P8 submarine hunting aircraft from Iceland, and Britain and Norway are establishing P8 squadrons of their own. The aim is to track and hold at risk Russian nuclear subs as early as possible, because even a single one in the Atlantic could cause problems across a large swathe of ocean.
But a defensive perimeter may not be enough. A new generation of Russian ship-based missiles could strike NATO ships or territory from far north of the GIUK gap, perhaps even from the safety of home ports. “This technological development represents a dramatically new and challenging threat to NATO forces…. Similar concerns led the Reagan administration to adopt a more offensive naval posture, sending forces above the gap and into the maritime bastion of the Soviet Union.
Excerpts from Naval Strategy: Northern Fights, Economist, May 16, 2020
A competition for the North Pole heated up in May 2019, as Canada became the third country to claim—based on extensive scientific data—that it should have sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole. Canada’s bid, submitted to the United Nations’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), joins competing claims from Russia and Denmark. Like theirs, it is motivated by the prospect of mineral riches: the large oil reserves believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean, which will become more accessible as the polar ice retreats. And all three claims, along with dozens of similar claims in other oceans, rest on extensive seafloor mapping, which has proved to be a boon to science…
Coastal nations have sovereign rights over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by definition 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) out from their coastline. But the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened up the possibility of expanding that zone if a country can convince CLCS that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ’s limits…..Most of the 84 submissions so far were driven by the prospect of oil and gas, although advances in deep-sea mining technology have added new reasons to apply. Brazil, for example, filed an application in December 2018 that included the Rio Grande Rise, a deep-ocean mountain range 1500 kilometers southeast of Rio De Janeiro that’s covered in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.
To make a claim, a country has to submit detailed data on the shape of the sea floor and on its sediment, which is thicker on the shelf than in the deep ocean. …CLCS, composed of 21 scientists in fields such as geology and hydrography who are elected by member states, has accepted 24 of the 28 claims it has finished evaluating, some partially or with caveats; in several cases, it has asked for follow-up submissions with more data. Australia was the first country to succeed, adding 2.5 million square kilometers to its territory in 2008. New Zealand gained undersea territory six times larger than its terrestrial area. But CLCS only judges the merit of each individual scientific claim; it has no authority to decide boundaries when claims overlap. To do that, countries have to turn to diplomatic channels once the science is settled.
The three claims on the North Pole revolve around the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain system that runs from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Qikiqtaaluk region to the New Siberian Islands of Russia, passing the North Pole. Both countries claim the ridge is geologically connected to their continent, whereas Denmark says it is also tied to Greenland, a Danish territory. As the ridge is thought to be continental crust, the territorial extensions could be extensive)
Tensions flared when Russia planted a titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, after CLCS rejected its first claim, saying more data were needed. The Canadian foreign minister at the time likened the move to the land grabs of early European colonizers. Not that the North Pole has any material value: “The oil potential there is zip,” says geologist Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The real fight is over the Amerasian Basin” where large amounts of oil are thought to be locked up…
There’s also a proposal to makethe North Pole international, like Antarctica (South Pole), as a sign of peace, says Oran Young, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It seems a very sensible idea.”
Richard Kemeny, Fight for the Arctic Ocean is a boon for science, June 21, 2019
Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”..,,In January 2018 the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy.
China is also keen to tap into the Arctic resources that will become easier to exploit as the ice cap retreats. They include fish, minerals, oil and gas. The region could hold a quarter of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the United States Geological Survey. Chinese firms are interested in mining zinc, uranium and rare earths in Greenland.
As the ice melts, it may become more feasible for cargo ships to sail through Arctic waters. China is excited by this possibility (its media speak of an “ice silk road”). In the coming decades such routes could cut several thousand kilometres off journeys between Shanghai and Europe. Sending ships through the Arctic could also help to revive port cities in China’s north-eastern rustbelt… China is thinking of building ports and other infrastructure in the Arctic to facilitate shipping. State-linked firms in China talk of building an Arctic railway across Finland.
Chinese analysts believe that using Arctic routes would help China strategically, too. It could reduce the need to ship goods through the Malacca Strait, a choke-point connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Much of China’s global shipping passes through the strait. It worries endlessly about the strait’s vulnerability to blockade—for example, should war break out with America.
There are no heated territorial disputes in the Arctic, but there are sensitivities, including Canada’s claim to the North-West Passage, a trans-Arctic waterway that America regards as international—ie, belonging to no single state.
Plenty of non-Arctic countries, including European ones, have similar dreams. But China is “by far the outlier” in terms of the amount of money it has pledged or already poured into the region, says Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand. Its biggest investments have been in Russia, including a gas plant that began operating in Siberia in December 2017. Russia was once deeply cynical about China’s intentions. But since the crisis in Ukraine it has had to look east for investment in its Arctic regions.
The interest shown by Chinese firms could be good news for many Arctic communities. Few other investors have shown themselves willing to stomach the high costs and slow pay-offs involved in developing the far north…. The main concern of Arctic countries is that China’s ambitions will result in a gradual rewiring of the region’s politics in ways that give China more influence in determining how the Arctic is managed. Greenland is a place to watch. Political elites there favour independence from Denmark but resist taking the plunge because the island’s economy is so dependent on Danish support. The prospect of Chinese investment could change that. Should Greenland become independent, China could use its clout there to help further its own interests at meetings of Arctic states, in the same way that it uses its influence over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations from criticising Chinese behaviour in their neighbourhood.
Excerpts from The Arctic: A Silk Road through Ice, Economist, Apr. 14, 2018, at 37
China on January 25, 2018 outlined its ambitions to extend President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming. Releasing its first official Arctic policy white paper, China said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road”…China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013.
Among its increasing interests in the region is its major stake in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project which is expected to supply China with four million tonnes of LNG a year.
Shipping through the Northern Sea Route would shave almost 20 days off the regular time using the traditional route through the Suez Canal. COSCO Shipping has also previously sailed vessels through the Arctic’s northeast passage.
China’s increasing prominence in the region has prompted concerns from Arctic states over its long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployment…The white paper said China also eyes development of oil, gas, mineral resources and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region. China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to connect China to Europe, the Middle East and beyond via massive infrastructure projects across dozens of countries…
Excerpts from China unveils vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic, Reuters, Jan. 25, 2018