Tag Archives: nuclear submarines Russia

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

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

Nuclear Submarines on Fire (2)

Vladimir Putin has confirmed  on July 4, 2019  that the top-secret submarine that suffered a deadly fire was nuclear-powered, but Russia’s defence minister said the nuclear unit had been sealed off and was in “working order.”  The incident, which left 14 Russian sailors dead,  The Russian government has been slow to reveal information about the incident because the submersible, thought to be a deep-diving vessel used for research and reconnaissance, is among Russia’s most secret military projects.  The fire aboard the “Losharik” AS-31 submersible began in the battery compartment and spread through the vessel…The vessel is thought to be made of a series of orb-like compartments, which increase the submersible’s resilience and allow it to dive to the ocean floor. Once there, it can perform topographical research and participate in rescue missions. It may even be able to tap and sever communications cables on the seabed.

Officials claim the submariners sealed themselves in one of the compartments to battle the blaze and toxic fumes…A Norwegian official told Reuters there had been no “formal communication” from Russia about an incident aboard a nuclear-powered vessel, but “we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents”….Accidents aboard submarines invariably evoke comparisons to Putin’s clumsy handling of the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000, which left 118 dead and families desperate for information about their loved ones.

Excerpt Putin confirms fire-hit Russian submarine was nuclear-powerered, Guardian, July 4, 2019

Crabs in Radioactive Seas: Kara Sea

The Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s dumped several hundred containers with solid radioactive waste in the Blagopoluchie Bay in Novaya Zemlya. Back then, these waters were covered with ice overwhelming parts of the year.  Today, that is quickly changing. The bay located in the northern part of the Russian Arctic archipelago is now ice-free increasing parts of the year. With the retreating ice follow new species.

Researchers from the Russian Shirshov Institute of Oceanology have comprehensively studied the eco system of the bay for several years. Among their key findings is a quickly growing number of snow crabs. In this year’s research expedition to the remote waters, the researchers were overwhelmed by the numbers. According to the institute, the crab invasion can be described «as avalanche».

The number of crabs in the area is now estimated to almost 14,000 per hectare, the institute informs. With the help of underwater photo and video footage, the researchers have studied how the crab expansion is leading to a other reduction in other marine life on the sea bottom.    A further spread in the other parts of the Kara Sea is imminent, and the Russian Fisheries Agency (Rosrybolovstvo) believe that the Kara Sea will ultimately become an area with commercial crab fishing.

But Kara seas is a major nuclear waste dump…No major leakage from the radioactive materials have so far been registered.  Soviet authorities are believed to have dumped about 17,000 containers with solid radioactive wastes in Arctic waters and primarily in the Kara Sea. More than 900 containers are located on the bottom of the Blagopoluchie Bay. Also a number of reactor compartments were dumped, as well as three nuclear subs and other nuclear materials.

Exceprts from Atle Staalesen, Arctic crab invasion comes to nuclear waste graveyard, the Barents Observer, Nov. 26, 2018

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.

Spent Nuclear Fuel at Andreyeva Bay

Nuclear specialists say Andreyeva Bay contains the largest reserves of spent nuclear fuel in the world, in fragile conditions that have disturbed the international community for years During the Cold War period, nuclear submarines were refuelled at sea, and the spent nuclear fuel was then shipped to Andreyeva Bay, where it was placed in a special storage facility to cool off before being transported to a reprocessing plant at Mayak, in the Urals. But in the early 1980s, leaks sprung up in the storage system, causing high levels of radioactive contamination.

The facility at Andreyeva Bay was one of many top-secret installations in the Soviet Arctic. This is partly because Russia has a working nuclear submarine base on the other side of the bay at Zaozyorsk….[W]estern nations who see Moscow as a military threat are helping to fund the clean-up of the mess the Soviet military left behind. 13 countries have provided €165m in funding since 2003 for nuclear decommissioning in Russia’s north-west. There have also been a number of bilateral projects, with Britain, Norway and other countries funding a long project to help clean up Andreyeva Bay.

The Norwegian foreign minister….said the funding for the projectd was committed nearly two decades ago, when Russia was in no economic state to deal with the problems alone. He also pointed out that the Andreyeva Bay facility is only about 40 miles from the Norwegian border, making the decommissioning issue one in which Norway has long taken a strong interest.  “Nuclear challenges recognise no borders, and it is in our common interest to deal with nuclear waste now rather leaving the problems to future generations,” said the Norwegian foreign minister…

A suite of new buildings has been constructed around the area where the spent nuclear fuel caskets are kept, replacing the decaying structures that stood there previously. Work to load canisters into the giant protective casks can now be done using specially commissioned machinery.

The Rossita, a ship constructed for the task, will take the huge fuel casks to Murmansk, where they will be put on fortified trains which will proceed under armed guard on the long journey from the Arctic to the Mayak reprocessing site. At the Mayak facility, the spent fuel will be recycled and the Russians say they will turn it into fuel to be used in civilian nuclear reactors.

Specialists at the plant estimate it could take 10 years to remove all the fuel. About half of the caskets have some kind of surface damage to their containers and will be dealt with after the non-problematic batches have been removed.

Excerpts from Russia begins cleaning up the Soviets’ top-secret nuclear waste dump, Guardian, July 2, 2017

Nuclear Submarines on Fire

More than 80 firefighters and 20 fire trucks were involved in the work to extinguish the fire [that occurred on nuclear submarine  the “Oryol”], at around 2PM Moscow time during  works on the submarine, at Zvezdochk,  shipyard in Severodvinsk Russia.   The first information that the fire had been put out, came at around 5PM, but this information turned out to be false. The fire was not extinguished until 00:57 Moscow time, after the dock with the submarine had been flooded.  The vessels reactor had been shut down and the fuel had been unloaded before the repairs started. The submarine had no weapons onboard

One of many accidents
This accident that occurred on April 7, 2015 was the latest in a series of accidents that have occurred at Zvezdochka and other ship repair yards in Northwest-Russia during the last years.

On December 29, 2011 a fire broke out on the nuclear-powered Delta IV-class submarine “Yekaterinburg” while it was in a floating dock at the naval yard Roslyakovo just north of the town of Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula. According to the first official reports the fire only harmed the outer rubber coating of the submarine, and all the missiles had removed from the vessel before going in dock. Later Northern Fleet officials admitted that the submarine had both missiles and torpedoes on board. “Yekaterinburg” was re-launchedin June 2014, after two years of repairs.

In March 2014, during decommissioning work on the Oscar-II class nuclear submarine “Krasnodar” at the Nerpa naval yard north of Murmansk, the rubber on the outer hull of the submarine caught fire. There were no radioactive leakages, and no one was hurt in the accident.

Tuesday’s accident was the seventh at Zvezdochka in ten years, according to RIANovosti.  The other accidents were:

February 19 2010: Fire during dismantling of the Akula-class nuclear submarine K-480 “Ak Bars”. No casualties. Cause of fire: violation of fire safety during hot works.
December 11 2009: Leak of two cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste from a broken pipeline. No casualties, no radioactive waste leaked into the environment.
October 6 2009: Fire during dismantling of the Yankee-class nuclear submarine K-403 “Kazan”. The fire occurred during use of gas-flame cutter. Workers evacuated, no casualties.
March 25 2009: Fire during dismantling of the Yankee-class nuclear submarine K-411 “Orenburg”. The rubber coating of the vessel caught fire during hot works. No casualties.
July 26 2007: The main ballast tank of a nuclear submarine in dry dock was punctured as a result of excess air pressure. No casualties.
August 1 2005: Two people died in a fire during dismantling of an Akula-class nuclear submarine. Cause of the fire was ignition of vapors of fuel and lubricants during hot works.

Excerpts  from Trude Pettersen, Fire-struck nuclear submarine to be repaired, Barents Observer, Apr. 8, 2015

Military Capabilities of India – 2014

India’s first-ever dedicated military satellite, Rukmini or GSAT-7, “seamlessly networked” around 60 warships and 75 aircraft during the massive month-long naval combat exercise in the Bay of Bengal that ended on Feb. 28, 2014…Apart from GSAT-7, the exercise this year also saw the “maiden participation” of nuclear-powered submarine INS Chakra, on a 10-year lease from Russia for $1 billion, and the newly-acquired P-8I  [Boeing P-8 Poseidon] long range maritime patrol aircraft [bought from the United States].

While the over 8,000-tonne INS Chakra is not armed with long-range nuclear missiles because of international treaties like the Missile Technology Control Regime, it serves as “a potent hunter-killer” of enemy warships and submarines, apart from being capable of firing land-attack cruise missiles.  INS Chakra adds some desperately-needed muscle to underwater combat arm at a time when the Navy is grappling with just 13 ageing diesel-electric submarines, three of which are stuck in life-extension refits  As for the P-8Is, the Navy has till now inducted three of the eight such sensor and radar-packed aircraft ordered in 2009 for $2.1billion from the US. Also armed with potent anti-submarine warfare capabilities, the P-8Is are working in conjunction with medium-range Dorniers [from Germany] and Israeli Searcher-II and Heron UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to create a three-tier surveillance grid in the heavily-militarized IOR.  India, in fact, is in the process of ordering another four P-8I aircraft.

Excerpt from Rajat Pandit, Navy validates massive exercise under country’s first military satellite’s gaze, The Times of India Mar. 1, 2013