Submarine Cemetery, an Ecological Disaster

Submarine Cemetery, an Ecological Disaster
  • PublishedAugust 4, 2022
rusty portholes of a submarine

The Russian submarine cemetery in Andreyeva bay: An ecological disaster on Europe’s doorstep.

At the end of the 1990s, western countries discovered that the Russian Navy, the pride of a beleaguered Soviet Union, was hiding an open nuclear dump. Since then, 25 years of international cooperation and massive Western funding have cleaned up the situation. The worst has been avoided: the leaks have been plugged and the most dangerous elements removed. Despite recent developments in the international context, the decommissioning effort must be maintained and completed.

A remote fjord in the Barents Sea

“Litsa Fjord”: The name is more reminiscent of vast expanses of tundra, ice floes in winter, salmon farming and preserved biodiversity at the world’s end. However, it was there, 34 mi (55 km) away from their border, that the Norwegians realized in the mid-1990s that a major nuclear disaster was threatening them.

Since the early 1960s, the nuclear ships of the Northern Fleet based in Murmansk, some 30 miles to the east, had been coming there to recharge their nuclear reactors.

For 30 years, the site was covered by the greatest secrecy. However, everything was gradually abandoned. In 1982, the water tightness of the storage pools containing irradiated fuel elements broke in building #5. The elements were hastily moved to a neighbouring building. Nevertheless, highly radioactive fragments remained at the bottom of the pools. This temporary situation has become a permanent one and the displaced fuel elements were buried in concrete.

Then a slow drift began, similar to that of the Soviet Union.

When the first foreign observers managed to visit the site in the mid-1990s, there was no storage plan. Some of the containers were stored in the open air, facing one of the harshest climates in the world.

Location of Litsa Fjord and Andreyeva Bay
Location of Litsa Fjord and Andreyeva Bay

Lies and blindness to ecological disaster

The first battle was to overcome the taboo of secrecy: in 1996, the first Russians engineers who tried to denounce this ecological disaster were arrested and imprisoned for espionage.

But the powerful Soviet Navy, which then operated more than 245 nuclear submarines, had to admit its secret: the Andreyeva site contained more than a hundred used nuclear cores, 22,000 fuel elements, half of which were damaged or leaking, 600,349 ft3 (17,000 m3) of solid nuclear waste and 45,909 ft3 (1,300 m3) of liquid nuclear waste!

The concentration of fuel elements was so high that experts feared the start of an unexpected and uncontrollable chain reaction.

Used nuclear fuel stored in so-called “bottles” at Andreyeva Bay
Used nuclear fuel stored in so-called “bottles” at Andreyeva Bay

International determination pays off

While the Russian sailors had to beg for food in the absence of pay, the international community, led by Norway, mobilized to manage and finance the dismantling of this floating Chernobyl.

On the Russian side, the navy was relinquished and the case was entrusted to Rosatom.

The challenge was considerable, since the waste had to be transported 1,900 mi (3,000 km) south to the Urals, to the Mayak dismantling plant.

Under the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s leadership, the western nations participated both financially and through their expertise: France designed the system to remove the fuel elements from the site, Italy invented a dedicated ship to carry them to the port of Murmansk, from where they would be evacuated by train.

In June 2017, the first train left for Mayak dismantling plant. It would be followed by others, at a rate of 3 or 4 per year, each of them transporting nearly 600 fuel elements.

Containers of used fuel elements at Andreyeva Bay
Containers of used fuel elements at Andreyeva Bay

Maintain the effort despite international tensions

Today, the dismantling process is still on-going. In October 2021, it is estimated that half of the stockpile had been removed. Yet, the process is now entering the most dangerous phase, that is, the removal of the most damaged elements. Continued international assistance is still needed to complete the clean-up of the area. After the Andreyeva waste, some environment-threatening wrecked submarines must be dealt with in the Barents Sea, such as the Komsomolets, which sank following a fire in April 1989, or the K159, which was accidentally sunk during a tow in 2003.

Let us hope that despite the isolation it is currently experiencing, the Russian government will leave the door open to international aids, aiming above all for the Greater good and the preservation of the environment for future generations.

Nuclear Submarine K159 before its sinking in 2003
Nuclear Submarine K159 before its sinking in 2003
Spent nuclear fuel stored in bottles
Spent nuclear fuel stored in bottles
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