NBC Weapons: Do It For The Fish

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January 9, 2020: Not all nuclear weapons go bang. Some just quietly kill the fish. To avoid that Norway has begun paying for the movement of Russian Navy nuclear waste from a Cold War era storage facility 65 kilometers from the Norwegian border to a more modern storage facility at Murmansk, about a hundred kilometers further east. Each shipload (14 containers) cost $565,000 move. This includes getting spent fuel rods and other nuclear waste from decaying Cold War era containers and into more modern ones. After that, it costs about $280,000 for the sea voyage to Murmansk. From there the nuclear material is eventually moved to a nuclear reprocessing in Chelyabinsk, which is far inland, just east of the Ural Mountains on the border between Asia and Europe.

Until recently Russia paid for movement of the nuclear material out of the old naval base at Andreeva Bay while Norway had already contributed millions of dollars to upgrade the nuclear storage site there to avoid leaks or other accidents that would contaminate nearby fishing grounds that are valuable to Norway and Russia. As of late 2019, only about 25 percent of the fuel rods at Andreeva Bay have been recovered from the crumbling storage facilities, repackaged in more effective containers and shipped to a better storage site or reprocessing. It will take another eight years or more to recover, repack and move the remaining fuel rods. That will leave some material that is too difficult to recover and has had new containment structures built around it.

The Andreeva Bay naval base was built in the early 1960s for the storage of nuclear waste. The base was closed in 1982 because of a leak in the water storage pool where spent nuclear fuel rods were kept. The cleanup went on until 1989 but not before 770,000 tons of contaminated water leaked into the Barents Sea. Some 9,000 nuclear fuel rods, in 1,500 barrels, were moved to safer storage. At the time Russia was reluctant to allow Norway to get involved but there were several accidents during the cleanup. To make matters worse there was the 1986 nuclear plant meltdown in Chernobyl, which made cooperation with Norway a prudent safety and political move. The cooperation, and financial aid from the West, increased after 1991. Post-Cold War Russia was more open and more details of Cold War era nuclear contamination in Russia emerged. It turned out there was a lot of clean up required. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the storage facility continued to deteriorate. Norway was at risk as well because the Andreeva Bay facility was so close to Norway and any Barents Sea contamination hurt both nations, but especially Norway because the contamination was so close. This was a problem not only at Andreeva Bay but at several other Russian naval bases further east where over 200 nuclear-powered ships, most of them submarines, were in need of dismantling and safe storage of nuclear fuel rods from nearly 500 nuclear reactors.

Twenty years after the Cold war ended Russia, with financial and technical assistance from America, Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy and Norway, has dismantled over 200 retired nuclear submarines a year, and a few of the nuclear-powered surface ships. Up through the early 1990s, Russia had built nearly 260 nuclear ships (nearly all submarines). The end of the Cold War in 1991 left the Russians unable to keep most of those subs in service. Russian nukes were expensive to maintain. Many were not worth keeping in service simply because they were too noisy, too old and had too many other flaws. Most of the submarine dismantling was paid for by the U.S., which spent over $15 billion to implement the 1993 Strategic Offense Arms Elimination Implementing Agreement with Russia. Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy and Norway also contributed cash and technical assistance to this effort.

Throughout the 1990s, Russia only decommissioned 2-4 nuclear subs a year. Many nuclear subs were taken out of service in the early 1990s, although lots of older boats were being decommissioned in the late 1980s before the Cold War even ended. That's because Russians tend to keep old weapons in service long beyond the time it's worth it. By the end of the 1990s, Russia had 150 decommissioned nuclear subs waiting to be dismantled. Russia hoped to complete dismantling these submarines by 2007, but things went much slower than expected because there was no money. However, by 2000, things really began to pick, as 18 subs were dismantled in that year and that soon reached 20 subs a year.

It costs about $7 million to dismantle one submarine. The primary task is to safely take apart the nuclear reactor, and get the radioactive components to a secure storage facility. The foreign countries contributing to this effort are all maritime nations that were concerned about the old Soviet subs falling apart while still in the water. What got this aid program going was the discovery that the Soviets were just dumping some radioactive components into Arctic waters. Russia was more willing, than the Soviets, to do the right thing and is determined to safely dispose of all these old nuclear subs.

Now the priority has shifted to dealing with the radioactive components of those subs, especially the nuclear fuel rods. These can be reprocessed into new fuel rods for power plants but that is behind schedule as well. Another priority is moving stored fuel rods out of decrepit Cold War area facilities like Andreeva Bay. Most of this work is done at the many Russian naval facilities on the north coast. But about 15 percent of the work is taking place in the Far East, where Russia also stationed nuclear subs during the Cold War. In the Far East, there is an additional problem because the dismantling work is taking place less than 200 kilometers from North Korea, which has already been caught several times trying to buy or steal nuclear material from those facilities.

 


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