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Planning for new expeditions to Arctic nuclear dustbin

Igor Shumakov and Per Strand are drafting new expeditions when Norwegian and Russian authorities now are teaming up for extended monitoring of the Soviet Union’s main nuclear waste dumpsites in the Kara Sea.

The first joint Norwegian, Russian scientific expedition to the Kara Sea in 18 years had just arrived back at port when officials from the two countries initiate a continuation. The Kara Sea was the dumping area for both accidental nuclear reactors and containers with solid radioactive waste for the naval fleet and the nuclear powered icebreaker fleet during the 70ies and 80ies.

Despite being a signature country of the 1972 London convention banning dumping of high-level radioactive waste at sea, the Soviet Union dumped some 16 reactors and 17,000 containers of radioactive waste east of Novaya Zemlya. The Kara Sea was at that time considered to be one of the most remote located oceans in the world.

Drilling in nuclear waste
Today, Big Oil is moving in with both seismic activities and test drilling for oil and gas. The Kara Sea is also the western entrance to the Northern Sea Route, a growing important trade route between Europe and Asia.

“The Russian government has made a program for rehabilitation of the Arctic region for radioactive waste,” says Igor Shumakov, Deputy head of Roshydromet, Russia’s Federal Service for Hydrometorology and Environmental Monitoring.

“Expeditions together with Norway to monitor the situation are important,” he says.

Director Per Strand with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities says to BarentsObserver that it is in Norway’s interest to obtain insight to the whole picture of what is dumped in the Kara Sea.

16 reactors, 17,000 containers 
The expedition onboard the Russian research vessel “Ivan Petrov” this September sailed to the Stepovogo bay east of Novaya Zemlya. Here, the ill-fated nuclear powered submarine K-27 is resting at 30 meters depth, and further in the bay, some 2,000 containers with solid radioactive waste are dumped. The scientists presented their tentatively results in Kirkenes on Tuesday showing limited increases of Cesium-137 in the sediments and seawater, especially near the dumped containers.

Stepovogo bay is just one of many bays and dumpsites in the open Kara Sea where the Soviet Union’s nuclear fleet dumped reactors. A total of six reactors with spent nuclear fuel and another 10 reactors without fuel rest at the seabed.

18 years since last expedition
While the scientists now say there are just slightly enhanced levels of Cs-137 in sediments and bottom sea water, the situation at other location could be drastically different. In Abrosimova bay three reactor compartments are dumped in addition to several vessels loaded with radioactive waste.

Last time the scientists had a joint expedition to the Kara Sea was in 1994 following expeditions two year in a row before that. Mcu can have changed since then. 

Next joint expedition will likely not next year. Bureaucracy and questions about access-permission for the scientists to the sites in the Kara Sea normally cause delays. The voyage this September was first planned to sail last autumn, but was for the above-mentioned reasons delayed a year. 2014 will likely be the date for next departure.

Radioactive consequences for fisheries 
There is also a great international interest in collaborating in missions and monitoring of the Kara Sea. This year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) participated. Norwegian authorities argues it is very important for the fishery interests that monitoring of the northern sea areas should be stepped up, since any radioactive pollution could have negative consequences for the Norwegian fishing industry.

Analysis of the samples collected near the nuclear dump sites will be tested in both Russia and Norway. Both countries say they will evaluate the results, discuss the conditions of the dumped items and discuss the possibilities of raising them from the sea bed and by that avoid future leakages of radioactivity to the Arctic environment.

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