Tag Archives: Novaya Zemlya archipelago

The 17 000 Nuclear Objects Dumped in the Kara Sea


“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

The Most Radioactive Sea on Earth and How to Save it

No other places in the world’s oceans have more radioactive and nuclear waste than the Kara Sea. The reactors from the submarines K-11, K-19, and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the Lenin-icebreaker have to be lifted from the seafloor and secured. 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.

The submarine reactors dumped in shallow bays east of the closed-off military archipelago of Novaya Zemlya… had experienced accidents and posed a radiation threat at the navy yards where people were working.  Dumping the reactors in shallow waters, someplace at only 50 meters, meant they could be lifted one day when technology allowed.

A worst-case scenario would be a failed lifting attempt, causing criticality in the uranium fuel, again triggering an explosion with following radiation contamination of Arctic waters.  

A Russian-Norwegian expedition to the K-27 submarine in Stepovogo bay in 2012 took samples for studying possible radioactive leakages. Now, the Bellona group, an environmental NGOs, calls  an expedition in 2021  to thoroughly study the strength of the hull and look for technical options on how to lift the heavy submarine and reactor compartments. A previous study report made for Rosatom and the European Commission roughly estimated the costs of lifting all six objects, bringing them safely to a yard for decommissioning, and securing the reactors for long-term storage.

The estimated price-tag for all six is €278 million, of which the K-159 in the Barents Sea is the most expensive with a cost of €57.5 million. Unlike the submarines and reactors that are dumped in relatively shallow waters in the Kara Sea, the K-159 is at about 200 meters depth, and thus will be more difficult to lift.

Excerpt from Tackling dumped nuclear waste gets priority in Russia’s Arctic Council leadership in 2021, BarentsObserver, May 23, 2021

The Nuclear Reactors Buried in the Deep Sea

The Soviet Union used the waters east of Novaya Zemlya to dump reactors, spent nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste from both the navy and the fleet of nuclear-powered civilian icebreakers. About 17,000 objects were dumped in the period from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Most of the objects are metal containers with low- and medium level radioactive waste. The challenge today, though, are the reactors with high-level waste and spent uranium fuel, objects that will pose a serious threat to the marine environment for tens of thousands of years if nothing is done to secure them.

The reactors from the submarines K-11, K-19 and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 (in the Kara Sea) and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the Lenin-icebreaker have to be lifted and secured. Also, the submarine K-159 (in the Barents Sea) that sank north of Murmansk while being towed for decommissioning in 2003 have to be lifted from the seafloor, the experts conclude. A study report made for Rosatom and the European Commission has evaluated the costs of lifting all six objects, bringing them safely to a yard for decommissioning and securing the reactors for long-term storage. The estimated price-tag for all six will €278 millions, of which the K-159 is the most expensive with a cost of €57.5 millions. Unlike the submarines and reactors that are dumped in relatively shallow waters in the Kara Sea, the K-159 is at about 200 meters depth, and thus will be more difficult to lift.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Lifting Russia’s accident reactors from the Arctic seafloor will cost nearly €300 million, Mar. 8, 2020

Underwater Nuclear Wrecks

Russian scientists have said that radioactive waste sunk in the Arctic by the Soviet Navy has not leaked any contamination….  Data on the scuttled cargoes –– which includes several thousand containers of radioactive waste, as well as an entire nuclear submarine –– come from a month-and-a-half-long expedition in the Kara Sea conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oceanology.  Mikhail Flint, the institute’s head, told reporters last week that scientists on the expedition had managed to significantly improve their maps of where the sunken waste lies, especially in the area of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, a former Soviet nuclear bomb testing site.  From Novaya Zemlya’s craggy coast, the expedition conducted additional research mapping radioactive hazards in the White Sea, and then progressed to the Laptev Sea some 2000 nautical miles to the east.

Since the first decades of the 2000s, these mapping and measuring expeditions have taken place on an annual basis. Environmentalists fear the waste could eventually rupture and spoil thousands of square kilometers of fertile Arctic fishing grounds.

Beginning in 1955 and continuing until the early 1990s, the Russian Navy dumped enormous amounts of irradiated debris — and it one case an entire nuclear submarine — into the waters of the Arctic. It was not, however, until 2011 that the Russian government admitted this on an international level.  That year, Moscow shared with Norwegian nuclear officials the full scope of the problem. The list of sunken objects was far more than had initially been thought, and included 17,000 containers of radioactive waste; 19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel, and 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery.

Exceprts from  Charles Digges ussian officials update maps of radioactive debris sunk in Arctic, Bellona, Oct. 15, 2018.