Observer  /  Health  /  Technology

Russia’s ‘slow-motion Chernobyl’ at sea

Original publication by Alec Luhn for on 2 September 2020

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Beneath some of the world’s busiest fisheries, radioactive submarines from the Soviet era lie disintegrating on the seafloor. Decades later, Russia is preparing to retrieve them.

By tradition, Russians always bring an odd number of flowers to a living person and an even number to a grave or memorial. But every other day, 83-year-old Raisa Lappa places three roses or gladiolas by the plaque to her son Sergei in their hometown Rubtsovsk, as if he hadn’t gone down with his submarine during an ill-fated towing operation in the Arctic Ocean in 2003.

“I have episodes where I’m not normal, I go crazy, and it seems that he’s alive, so I bring an odd number,” she says. “They should raise the boat, so we mothers could put our sons’ remains in the ground, and I could maybe have a little more peace.”

After 17 years of unfulfilled promises, she may finally get her wish, though not out of any concern for the bones of Captain Sergei Lappa and six of his crew. With a draft decree published in March, President Vladimir Putin set in motion an initiative to lift two Soviet nuclear submarines and four reactor compartments from the silty bottom, reducing the amount of radioactive material in the Arctic Ocean by 90%. First on the list is Lappa’s K-159.

The two nuclear submarines together contain one million curies of radiation, or about a quarter of that released in the first month of the Fukushima disaster

The message, which comes before Russia’s turn to chair the Arctic Council next year, seems to be that the country is not only the preeminent commercial and military power in the warming Arctic, but also a steward of the environment. The K-159 lies just outside of Murmansk in the Barents Sea, the richest cod fishery in the world and also an important habitat of haddock, red king crab, walruses, whales, polar bears and many other animals.

The busy fisheries of the Barents Sea and other nearby northern oceans are in close proximity to the decaying nuclear submarines on the seabed
(Credit: Getty Images)

At the same time, Russia is leading another “nuclearification” of the Arctic with new vessels and weapons, two of which have already suffered accidents.

Decaying Legacy

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union built more than 400 nuclear-powered submarines, a “silent service” that gave the adversaries a way to retaliate even if their missile silos and strategic bombers had been taken out in a sudden first strike. Just 60 miles (97km) from the border with Nato member Norway, the Arctic port of Murmansk and surrounding military bases became the centre of the USSR’s nuclear navy and icebreakers, as well as their highly radioactive spent fuel.

After the Iron Curtain fell, the consequences came to light. For instance, at Andreyeva Bay, where 600,000 tonnes of toxic water leaked into the Barents Sea from a nuclear storage pool in 1982, the spent fuel from more than 100 submarines was kept partly in rusty canisters under the open sky. Fearing contamination, Russia and Western countries including Britain embarked on a sweeping clean-up, spending nearly £1bn ($1.3bn) to decommission and dismantle 197 Soviet nuclear submarines, dispose of strontium batteries from 1,000 navigation beacons and began removing fuel and waste from Andreyeva Bay and three other dangerous coastal sites. 

They contain large amount of spent nuclear fuel which in future for sure will leak into the environment – Ingar Amundsen

As in other countries, however, Soviet nuclear waste was also dumped at sea, and now the focus has shifted there. A 2019 feasibility study by a consortium including British nuclear safety firm Nuvia found 18,000 radioactive objects in the Arctic Ocean, among them 19 vessels and 14 reactors. While the radiation given off by most of these objects has neared background levels thanks to silt build-up, the study found 1,000 still have elevated levels of penetrating gamma radiation. Ninety percent of that is contained in six objects that Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom will raise in the next 12 years, Anatoly Grigoriev, Rosatom’s head of international technical assistance, told Future Planet: two nuclear submarines and reactor compartments from three nuclear submarines and the icebreaker Lenin.

“We consider even the extremely low probability of radioactive materials leaking from these objects as posing an unacceptable risk for the ecosystems of the Arctic,” Grigoriev said in a statement.

No such sweeping nuclear clean-up has ever been undertaken at sea. Recovering the reactor compartments will involve salvage jobs in frigid waters that are safe for such operations only three or four months out of the year. The two nuclear submarines, which together contain one million curies of radiation, or about a quarter of that released in the first month of the Fukushima disaster, will pose an even greater challenge.

Retrieving a large nuclear vessel like the K-159, similar to this November-class submarine pictured, will take meticulous logistical planning and investment
(Credit: Getty Images)

One of them is the K-27, once known as the “golden fish” because of its high cost. The 360ft-long (118m) attack submarine (a submarine designed to hunt other submarines) was plagued with problems since its 1962 launch with its experimental liquid-metal-cooled reactors, one of which ruptured six years later and exposed nine sailors to fatal doses of radiation. In 1981 and 1982, the navy filled the reactor with asphalt and scuttled it east of Novaya Zemlya island in a mere 108ft (33m) of water. A tugboat had to ram the bow after a hole blown in the ballast tanks only sank the aft end.

The K-27 was sunk after some safety measures were installed that should keep the wreck safe until 2032. But another incident is more alarming. The K-159, a 350ft (107m) November-class attack submarine, was in service from 1963 to 1989. The K-159 sank with no warning, sending 800kg (1,760lb) of spent uranium fuel to the seafloor beneath busy fishing and shipping lanes just north of Murmansk. Thomas Nilsen, editor of The Barents Observer online newspaper, describes the submarines as a “Chernobyl in slow motion on the seabed”.

For all the relatives it would bring some relief if their fathers and husbands were buried, not just lying on the bottom in a steel hulk – Dmitry Gurov

Ingar Amundsen, head of international nuclear safety at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, agrees that it is a question of when, not if, the sunken submarines will contaminate the waters if left as they are. “They contain large amount of spent nuclear fuel which in future for sure will leak into the environment, and we know from experience that only small amounts of contamination into the environment, or even rumours, would lead to problems and economic consequences for marine products and the fisheries.”

‘Cursed August’

Sergei Lappa was born in 1962 in Rubtsovsk, a small city in the Altai Mountains near the border with Kazakhstan. Though it was thousands of miles to the nearest ocean, he cultivated an interest in seafaring at a local model shipbuilding club, and after school he was accepted into the higher naval engineering academy in Sevastopol, Crimea. Tall, athletic and a good student, he was assigned to the navy’s most prestigious service: the Northern Submarine Fleet.

The K-159 towing operation was beset by bad weather, and the vessel began taking on water 

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, the military went into a decline that was revealed to the world when the top-of-the-line attack submarine Kursk sank with 118 crew on board in August 2000. By this time, Lappa was in charge of the K-159, which had been rusting since 1989 at a pier in the isolated navy town of Gremikha, nicknamed the “island of flying dogs” for its strong winds. On the morning of 29 August 2003, the long-delayed order came to tow the decrepit K-159, which had been attached to four 11-tonne pontoons with cables to keep it afloat during the operation, to a base near Murmansk for dismantling, despite a forecast of windy weather.

With the reactors off, Lappa and his skeleton crew of nine engineers operated the boat by flashlight. As the submarine was towed near Kildin Island at half past midnight, the cables to the bow pontoons broke in heavy seas, and a half-hour later water was discovered trickling into the eighth compartment. But as headquarters struggled with the decision to launch an expensive rescue helicopter, the crew kept trying to keep the submarine afloat. At 02:45am Mikhail Gurov sent one last radio transmission: “We’re flooding, do something!” By the time rescue boats from the tug arrived, the K-159 was on the bottom near Kildin Island. Of the three sailors who made it out, the only survivor was senior lieutenant Maxim Tsibulsky, whose leather jacket had filled with air and kept him afloat.

Yet another nuclear submarine had sunk during the “cursed” month of August, Russian newspapers wrote, but the incident caused little furore compared to the Kursk. The navy promised relatives it would raise the K-159 the next year, then repeatedly delayed the project. 

Even after 17 years of scavenging and corrosion, at least the bones of the crew likely remain in the submarine, according to Lynne Bell, a forensic anthropologist at Simon Fraser University. But the families have long since lost hope of recovering them.

“For all the relatives it would bring some relief if their fathers and husbands were buried, not just lying on the bottom in a steel hulk,” Gurov’s son Dmitry says. “It’s just that no one believes this will happen.”

The relatives of those who were on board the K-159 have received few answers about how and when the vessel could be raised
(Credit: Getty Images)

The situation has now changed, however, as Russia’s interest revives in the Arctic and its crumbling Soviet ports and military towns. Since 2013, seven Arctic military bases and two tanker terminals have been built as part of the Northern Sea Route, a shorter route to China that Putin has promised will see 80 million tonnes of traffic by 2025. The K-159 is lying underneath the eastern end of the route.

Minimising risk

Russia, Norway and other countries whose fishing boats ply the bountiful waters of the Barents Sea have now found themselves with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Although a 2014 Russian-Norwegian expedition to the K-159 wreck that tested the water, seafloor and animals like a sea centipede did not find radiation above background levels, an expert from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute said at the time that a reactor containment failure “could happen within 30 years of sinking in the best case and within 10 years at the worst”. That would release radioactive caesium-137 and strontium-90, among other isotopes.

While the vast size of the oceans quickly dilutes radiation, even very small levels can become concentrated in animals at the top of the food chain through “bioaccumulation” – and then be ingested by humans. But economic consequences for the Barents Sea fishing industry, which provides the vast majority of cod and haddock at British fish and chip shops, “may perhaps be worse than the environmental consequences”, says Hilde Elise Heldal, a scientist at Norway’s Institute of Marine Research.

According to her studies, if all the radioactive material from the K-159’s reactors were to be released in a single “pulse discharge”, it would increase Cesium-137 levels in the muscles of cod in the eastern Barents Sea at least 100 times. (As would a leak from the Komsomolets, another sunken Soviet submarine near Norway that is not slated for lifting.) That would still be below limits set by the Norwegian government after the Chernobyl accident, but it could be enough to scare off consumers. More than 20 countries continue to ban Japanese seafood, for instance, even though studies have failed to find dangerous concentrations of radioactive isotopes in Pacific predatory fishes following the Fukushima nuclear power plant release in 2011. Any ban on fishing in the Barents and Kara seas could cost the Russian and Norwegian economies €120m ($140m; £110m) a month, according to a European Commission feasibility study about the lifting project.

There is no ship in the world capable of lifting the K-159, so a special salvage vessel would have to be built

But an accident while raising the submarine, on the other hand, could suddenly jar the reactor, potentially mixing fuel elements and starting an uncontrolled chain reaction and explosion. That could boost radiation levels in fish 1,000 times normal or, if it occurred on the surface, irradiate terrestrial animals and humans, another Norwegian study found. Norway would be forced to stop sales of products from the Arctic such as fish and reindeer meat for a year or more. The study estimated that more radiation could be released than in the 1985 Chazhma Bay incident, when an uncontrolled chain reaction during refuelling of a Soviet submarine near Vladivostok killed 10 sailors.

Amundsen argued that the risk of such a criticality excursion with the K-159 or K-27 was low and could be minimised with proper planning, as it was during the removal of high-risk spent fuel from Andreyev Bay.

The decommissioning of Soviet-era nuclear vessels has been slow, while the pace of building new nuclear vessels is accelerating
(Credit: Getty Images)

“In that case we do not leave the problem for future generations to solve, generations where the knowledge of handling such legacy waste may be very limited,” he says.

The safety and transparency of Russia’s nuclear industry has often been questioned. Recently, Dutch authorities concluded that radioactive iodine-131 detected over northern Europe in June had come from the direction of western Russia, though they had no definitive proof that the radionuclides originated within the country. The Mayak reprocessing facility that received the spent fuel from Andreyev Bay by train has a troubled history going back to the world’s then-worst nuclear disaster in 1957. Rosatom continues to deny the findings of international experts that the facility was the source of a radioactive cloud of ruthenium-106 registered over Europe in 2017.

While the K-159 and K-27 need to be raised, Rashid Alimov of Greenpeace Russia has reservations. “We are worried about the monitoring of this work, public participation and the transport [of spent fuel] to Mayak,” he says.

Custom mission

Raising a submarine is a rare feat of engineering. The United States spent $800m (£610m) in an attempt to lift another Soviet submarine, the diesel-powered K-129 that carried several nuclear missiles, from 16,400ft (5,000m) in the Pacific Ocean, under the guise of a seabed mining operation. In the end, they only managed to bring a third of the submarine to the surface, leaving the CIA with little usable intelligence.

That was the deepest raise in history. The heaviest was the Kursk. To bring the latter 17,000-tonne missile submarine up from 350ft (108m) below the Barents Sea, the Dutch companies Mammoet and Smit International installed 26 hydraulically cushioned lifting jacks on a giant barge and cut 26 holes in the submarine’s rubber-coated steel hull with a water jet operated by scuba divers. On 8 October 2001, rushing to beat the winter storm season after four months of nerve-wracking work and delays, steel grippers fitted in the 26 holes lifted the Kursk from the seabed in 14 hours, after which the barge was towed to a dry dock in Murmansk. 

At less than 5,000 tonnes, the K-159 is smaller than the Kursk, but even before it sank its outer hull was “as weak as foil”, according to Bellona. It has since been embedded in 17 years’ worth of silt. A hole in the bow would seem to rule out pumping it full of air and raising it with balloons, as has been previously suggested. At a conference of European Bank of Reconstruction and Development donors in December, a Rosatom representative said there was no ship in the world capable of lifting it, so a special salvage vessel would have to be built.

The K-159 is one of many legacy Soviet submarines still present in Arctic waters
(Credit: Getty Images)

That will increase the estimated cost of €278m ($330m; £250m) to raise the six most radioactive objects. Donors are discussing Russia’s request to help finance the project, said Balthasar Lindauer, director of nuclear safety at EBRD.

“There’s consensus something needs to be done there,” he says. Any such custom-built vessel would likely need a bevy of specialised technologies such as bow and aft thrusters to keep it positioned precisely over the wreck.

But in August, Grigoriev told a Rosatom-funded website that one plan the company was considering would involve a pair of barges fitted with hydraulic cable jacks and secured to deep-sea moorings. Instead of steel grippers like the ones inserted into the holes in the Kursk, giant curved pincers would grab the entire hull and lift it up between the barges. A partially submersible scow would be positioned underneath, then brought to the surface along with the submarine and finally towed to port. The K-27 and K-159 could both be recovered this way, he said.

One of three engineering firms working on proposals for Rosatom is the military design bureau Malachite, which drafted a project to raise the K-159 in 2007 that “was never realised due to a lack of money”, according to its lead designer. This year the bureau has begun updating this plan, an employee tells Future Planet in the lobby of Malachite’s headquarters in St Petersburg. Many questions remain, however.

“What condition is the hull in? How much of force can it handle? How much silt has built up? We need to survey the conditions there,” the employee says, before the head of security arrives to break up our conversation.

Nuclear paradox

Removing the six radioactive objects fits in with an image Putin as crafted as a defender of the fragile Arctic environment. In 2017, he inspected the results of an operation to remove 42,000 tonnes of scrap metal from the Franz Josef Land archipelago as part of a “general clean-up of the Arctic”. He has spoken about environmental preservation at an annual conference for Arctic nations. And on the same day in March 2020 that he issued his draft decree about the sunken objects, he signed an Arctic policy that lists “protecting the Arctic environment and the native lands and traditional livelihood of indigenous peoples” as one of six national interests in the region.

At least eight more nuclear submarines are set to be added to the Northern Fleet in coming years
(Credit: Getty Images)

“For Putin, the Arctic is part of his historic legacy. It should be well-protected, bring real benefits and be clean,” said Dmitry Trenin, head of the think tank Carnegie Centre Moscow.

Yet while pursuing a “clean” Arctic, the Kremlin has also been backing Arctic oil and gas development, which accounts for the majority of shipping on the Northern Sea Route. State-owned Gazprom built one of two growing oil and gas clusters on the Yamal peninsula, and this year the government cut taxes on new Arctic liquified natural gas projects to 0% to tap into some of the trillions of dollars of fossil fuel and mineral wealth in the region.

And even as Putin cleans up the Soviet nuclear legacy in the far north, he is building a nuclear legacy of his own. A steady march of new nuclear icebreakers and, in 2019, the world’s only floating nuclear power plant has again made the Arctic the most nuclear waters on the planet.

Meanwhile, the Northern Fleet is building at least eight submarines and has plans to construct several more, as well as eight missile destroyers and an aircraft carrier, all of them nuclear-powered. It has also been testing a nuclear-powered underwater drone and cruise missile. In total, there could be as many as 114 nuclear reactors in operation in the Arctic by 2035, almost twice as many as today, a 2019 Barents Observer study found.

This growth has not gone without incident. In July 2019, a fire on a nuclear deep-sea submersible near Murmansk almost caused a “catastrophe of a global scale,” an officer reportedly said at the funeral of the 14 sailors killed. The next month, a “liquid-fuel reactive propulsion system” exploded during a test on a floating platform in the White Sea, killing two of those involved and briefly spiking radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk.

The Akademik Lomonosov is the world’s first floating power plant
(Credit: Getty Images)

“The joint efforts of the international community including Norway and Russia after breakup of the Soviet Union, using taxpayer money to clean up nuclear waste, was a good investment in our fisheries,” says The Barents Observer’s Nilsen. “But today there are more and more politicians in Norway and Europe who think it’s a really big paradox that the international community is giving aid to secure the Cold War legacy while it seems Russia is giving priority to building a new Cold War.”

As long as the civilian agency Rosatom is tasked with clean-up, the Russian military has little incentive to slow down this nuclear spree, Nilsen notes.

“Who is going to pay for the clean-up of those reactors when they are not in use anymore?” he asks. “That is the challenge with today’s Russia, that the military don’t have to think what to do with the very, very expensive decommissioning of all this.”

So while the coming nuclear clean-up is set to be the largest of its kind in history, it may turn out to be just a prelude to what’s needed to deal with the next wave of nuclear power in the Arctic.

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