The vast amount of radioactive waste that is the legacy of Russia’s nuclear-powered submarines has been known to be a looming environmental disaster – now it can be far worse.
Research now indicates that the enormous tanks holding discarded submarine fuel rods in the Andreeva Bay may explode at any time, creating a nuclear nightmare for Northern Europe.
Norway and other Western authorities have argued for years that the stockpile of highly radioactive nuclear waste on the Kola peninsula poses an environmental hazard to the local population and for Norway.
A new report from Rosatom, the Russian government’s highest nuclear authority, shows that there is a grave danger that the stockpile can explode. For Norway the consequences could exceed the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and no one knows how imminent the danger is – if it is a question of years – or hours.
"In the best case a small, limited explosion in just one of the stored rods can lead to radioactive contamination in a five-kilometer (three-mile) radius. In the worst case, such a single explosion could cause the entire tank facility to explode. We have no calculations for what that could lead to," Aleksandr Nikitin of environmental group Bellona told Aftenposten.
"It will at least, at a careful estimate, hit Northern Europe. There are enormous members of radioactivity stored in these tanks," said Nils Bøhmer, nuclear physicist and head of Bellona’s Russian division.
In 1982/83 radioactive contamination began to leak from used fuel rods from the nuclear submarine reactors. These were stored in flimsy warehouses in the old navy installation at Andreeva Bay. Three large cement tanks became a hurried solution, housing a series of large metal pipes encased in concrete. The rods were carefully placed in these pipes.
This measure was intended as a provisional solution for four to five years, but nothing has happened since. Norwegian authorities partially financed a study involving several of Russia’s foremost experts and institutes. In the end of 2006 a conclusion was reached, but the research has not been made public until now.
Nikitin came across the conclusions in the course of compiling a new Bellona report on the state of Andreeva Bay.
Nikitin and Igor Kudrik translate from the reports and explain. The large tanks, each containing 21,000 rods, are near the sea. Salt water has entered the tanks and lead to the rapid disintegration of the metal pipes. The salt water has then entered the pipes, breaking down the rods, releasing small uranium particles that fall to the bottom of the metal pipes.
"The conclusion of Rosatom is that when the amount of particles on the bottom reaches five to ten percent in relation to the amount of water, potentially explosive critical mass will occur," Kudrik said.
Rosatom uses the term "uncontrolled chain reaction" for what will occur.
Nikitin has had a prison term and a five year battle to be totally cleared of espionage charges by the Russian Supreme Court as his price for compiling Bellona’s first report on radioactive contamination at Kola.
"These stockpiles and what they contain have been known to the world for over 15 years. Nothing is done. But now something must be done or uncontrolled events will take place of their own accord. The consequences will be more dramatic than we can imagine. Inaction for all these years has put us on top of a large nuclear bomb. We know where the ‘gunpowder’ is, but we don’t know how long the fuse is," Nikitin said.
"Significantly greater pressure on Russia from its neighbors – and the entire world – is needed. The day it goes wrong, no one can say any longer that we did not know what would happen," Nikitin said.