The danger posed by nuclear waste from the Soviet era in the Arctic, both on land and especially in the ocean, should not be ignored, writes Lutz Feldt.

By Lutz Feldt, January 14, 2022

The Arctic as a whole has long had a geopolitical significance, although this is often superseded by other problems that are geographically closer at hand. The Arctic Ocean is viewed and treated from very different perspectives by the countries that border it. Although the essential issues of the region are identical, their national importance and thus the focus assigned to these issues and regional policy objectives diverge widely from state to state. As a result, it is worth questioning whether taking the lowest common denominator will remain sufficient for addressing the tasks and the problems in the Arctic Council and beyond.

One such challenge that is poorly served by the Arctic Council’s decision-making process is the disposal of nuclear waste from the Soviet era in the Arctic, both on land and especially in the ocean. The drivers of this waste issue are financial and ideological considerations. At none of the past conferences, seminars and even official meetings was this topic put on the agenda.

The long undocumented and uncontrolled disposal of nuclear waste, in liquid and solid form, occurred from 1946 to 1993 under the sole national responsibility of states worldwide. Though the practice was prohibited by an international agreement in 1993, Soviet-era waste was not safely disposed of. It was dumped in containers of all kinds over decades. Moreover, entire sunken reactors from submarines have been simply dumped in the Arctic.  Even though it is primarily a Russian problem in the Arctic, it is not a problem of the Russian Federation alone.

Though the precise risks to human health are challenging to ascertain, what we do know should be cause for alarm. The type and levels of radiation emanating from this waste, which will continue emanating for thousands of years into the environment if not safely remediated, presents a danger to the environment and local ecosystems, to the oceans, to fisheries and more. If radionuclides enter into the food chain, there is an acute risk to the lives and livelihoods of people in the regions.

Both sides of the Northern Sea Route, to the west in the Barents and Kara Seas and to the east in the Bering and Okhotsk Seas, are at high risk from this waste. In this respect, the radioactive waste, which was disposed of unprotected in the 1960s until the 1990s, is added to the pollution after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Liquid and solid nuclear waste was dumped by the Soviet Navy into the Barents and Kara Seas as well as into the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Kamchatka and into the Sea of Japan. Adding to the nuclear waste is the fact that the Soviet Union conducted underground nuclear tests on the island of Novaya Semlya.

To get a better sense of the size and scope of the challenge, one should consider looking at a 1992 study prepared for the US Department of Energy which, among other things, addresses nuclear pollution in the Baltic Sea caused by activities from Sillamae in Estonia. The uranium mining and an industrial site for production of nuclear materials active there until 1989 caused long-lasting environmental damage that has not been fully remediated to this day.

A storage pond directly on the Baltic Sea coast has long presented a nuclear and chemical threat to the environment. The 33-hectare diked body of water contained six million tons of radioactive and toxic waste products. It was not until 2008 that the landfill could be remediated and sealed, with the support of the German company Wismut GmbH. This example also shows that safety and environmental criteria were not particularly important in the Soviet Union. This also allows us to conclude how things were done in the Arctic.

Considering the localized wastes yet to be secured, the approximate places of which were published by the Russian Federation in 2011, it is noted that a large part of liquid wastes – about 18,000 tons of radioactive material – pose a very different threat to the ocean. Their radiative intensity is more limited in most cases. The information published in 2011 also noted that 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors and 735 contaminated machine parts remain to be remediated in Russia.

Though the scale of the challenge appears to be impossibly large, 90 percent of the radiation hazard is emanating from only six of these many objects. These are now to be salvaged and secured in the coming years. This assessment has not changed and some of the more limited contaminated objects are now secured. All plans and safeguards operations are extremely expensive and technically very complex and risky. These projects primarily involve nuclear-powered ships of the former Soviet Navy, but also decommissioned nuclear-powered icebreakers.

Rosatom, as the responsible Russian nuclear energy agency, together with the European Commission, has estimated that costs of remediating these objects will total €278 million, money that Russia does not have for this task. Over past years, several countries have supported Russia both financially and with technical expertise. The Kingdom of Norway is particularly worthy of mention here. From there, developments beyond this topic are also being closely monitored.

This brief consideration, limited to the western side of the Arctic, is intended to draw the attention of all Arctic states, and beyond, to action. The situation on the Pacific side of Russia is similar, but receives less attention. The dangers posed by these invisible but existing contaminated sites to the Arctic Ocean and the people who live along the coasts of the entire Arctic are great and omnipresent.

It is important to put this issue on the agenda of the Arctic Council more prominently and without blame in a consensual and prepared manner. Due to the general global tensions and risks, which also extend into the Arctic region, it would be good if a country of the Council, like Canada, without nuclear problems and with a responsibility for the Arctic as a whole, initiates this process and identifies the dangerous situation for the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Pacific as an important, non-military issue.

Lutz Feldt is a Vice Admiral (Ret’d) of the German Navy and serves as Director of Wise Pens International Limited.

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