Tag Archives: Northern Russian fleet

The Game of Chicken in the Melting Arctic

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.

GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, UK) gap. Image from wikipedia.

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

Nuclear Waste Russia: Andreyeva Bay

Andreyeva Bay, the former naval technical base come solid radioactive waste storage facility has undergone many improvements, but problems also remain. Andreyeva Bay is one of the hottest radioactive spots in Northwest Russia and work deadlines are hard to meet.  Founded in between 1960 and 1964, Andreyeva Bay’s task was to remove, store and ship for reprocessing at the Ural Mountains Mayak Chemical Combine spent nuclear fuel from nuclear submarines. After a 1982 accident in the spent nuclear fuel storage, Russia Ministery of Defense decided to reconstruct the facility. But the turbulent political and economic conditions of the 1980s and 1990s scuttled the plans. Andreyeva Bay was assigned to Minatom, Rosatom’s precursor, in 2000.  The beleaguered facility, which is nearby the Norwegian border is of special concern to Oslo. Norway’s Deputy Ambassador in Moscow, Bård Svendsen, noted that the two countries had cooperated on solving the Andreyeva bay issue for many years.  “Over these years, much has been done and much remains to be done,” said Svendsen. “Norwegian authorities will continue this work, which costs some €10 million euro a year.”  According to Rosatom’s deputy head of Department for Project Implementation and Nuclear and Radiaiton Safety, Anatoly Grigorieyev, the last 10 years have seen the installation of constant radiation monitoring and significant improvements in the conditions in which radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel is stored.  A new installation for working with spent nuclear fuel is expected to be installed at Andreyeva Bay in 2014, and by 2015 the fuel is slated for removal – the same year a facility for handling radioactive waste should be installed, he said in remarks reported by Regnum news agency.  “The work we have planned will allow for the territory to be brought up to suitable conditions within 10-15 years,” said Grigorieyev.

Vladimir Romanov, deputy director of the Federal Medical and Biological Agency, said that studies conducted by his institute confirm that the radiological conditions at Andreyeva Bay and at Gremikha – the second onshore storage site at the Kola Peninsula for spent nuclear fuel from submarines – are indeed on the mend…. According to Valery Panteleyev, head of SevRAO, the Northwest Russian firm responsible for dealing with radioactive waste Some 846 spent fuel assemblies have been taken from storage at the former naval based to the Mayak Chemical Combine for reprocessing thanks to infrastructure built for fuel unloading purposes.  Panteleyev said Gremikha still currently is home to used removable parts from liquid metal cooled reactors submarine reactors, spent fuel assemblies, a reactor from an Alpha class submarine and more than 1000 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste.  Panteleyev said that by the end of 2012, all standard and non-standard fuel will have been sent to Mayak from Gremikha. He said that between 2012 and 2020 the removable parts of the liquid metal cooled reactors would also be gone, and that during the period between 2012 and 2014, 4000 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste would also be removed to long term storage at Saida Bay.  If all goes according to schedule, the Gremikha site will be rehabilitated by 2025.

Rosatom also presented detailed reports on an international project to build long-term storage for reactor compartments at the Saida Bay storage site for aged submarine reactors.  Panteleyev said none of the achievements at either Saida Bay or Gremikha would have been possible without international help.  The projects are being completed with funding from Germany, Italy, France, Norway, Sweden, Great Britain and the EBRD.  “These countries are investing in the creation of infrastructure for handling radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, dismantlement of nuclear vessels of the atomic fleet and in the infrastructure for the safe storage or reactor compartments,” said Panteleyev….

Another item of special concern at the Bellona/Rosatom seminar was the disposition of the floating spent nuclear fuel vessel, the Lepse. A former technical support vessel, taken out of service in 1988 the Lepse presents the biggest nuclear and radiation risk of all retired nuclear service ships in Russia. The Lepse’s spent nuclear fuel storage holds – in casks and caissons – 639 spent fuel assemblies, a significant portion of which are severely damaged.  Extraction of these spent fuel assemblies presents special radiological risks and technical innovation. The vessel is currently moored at Atomflot in Murmansk, the base of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet.  Mikhail Repin, group director for the Russian Federal State Unitary Enterprise the Federal Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, said work on the Lepse is divided into three categories: transfer of the vessel to the ship repair yard Nerpa in the Murmansk Region, fixing it to an assembly based, removing the spent fuel and dividing into blocks. The work is expected to be complete by 2012.  But the barriers to enacting this project, however, remain largely bureaucratic.  “One gets the impression that international and Russian bureaucrats are capable of muddling any project, as shown by the experience with the Lepse,” said Bellona’s Niktin. The project of dismantling the Lepse have remained on paper since 1995.  The Lepse was built in 1930, and the vessel has been afloat for 75 years, said Repin… The equipment necessary for removing the spent fuel assemblies must be fabricated for specifically this project. The equipment must first ensure the safety of the workers, meaning the work will have to be done essentially remotely to ensure minimum exposure.