Information now provided to the Norwegian daily Aftenposten by Russia’s authorities catalogue “enormous quantities” of Soviet-era nuclear reactors and radioactive waste dumped into the Kara Sea over the course of decades, far worse than previously known, and which include the experimental K-27 submarine that was eventually scuttled in 1981 once repairs to its liquid metal nuclear power plant were deemed impossible to complete.
That scuttling operation was allegedly performed at a far shallower depth than the International Atomic Energy Authority's guidelines of 3,000 meters, and although its two experimental VT-1 reactors were
sealed to avoid radioactive pollution there are now questions as to the real danger of contamination. According to the Bellona Foundation, a Norway-based environmental NGO with a long history of involvement with the Soviet Union’s nuclear dumping grounds, information that the K-27’s reactors could re-achieve critical status was released during a seminar with Rosatom (Russia’s nuclear regulatory body) in February of this year.
Norway’s Minister of the Environment, Bård Vegar Solhjell, immediately played down any dangers revealed by the report, though Bellona itself believes that the gradual publication of information by Russia is
intended as a quiet call for help in dealing with a huge (and expensive) issue. In addition to the K-27 submarine, officials confirmed to Aftenposten the existence of some 17 thousand containers of radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors (five with spent nuclear fuel) and 735 pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery.
An editorial in Aftenposten mentions that as recently as 2006 Russia detected no leaks emanating from the K-27 submarine, and the country has assembled a commission to map the nuclear waste outlined in its
report. Meanwhile, a Norwegian-Russian effort is set to begin charting nuclear waste in the Kara and Barents Sea, which was used as a radioactive dump by the Soviet Union into the early 1990s in violation
of the London Convention of 1972.
Exxon Mobile and Rosneft signed a deal in April of 2012 to jointly develop oil reserves in the Kara Sea, a prospect which may hold more than 37 billion barrels. According to Bellona’s Igor Kurdrik, Russia therefore has a vested interest in charting and cleaning up the area’s radioactive waste
before oil extraction begins.
Throughout its history with nuclear propelled submarines the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet lost a total of four of its vessels, though with the exception of the K-27 all others were lost in maritime accidents.