Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Moscow’s Immediate Goal for Arctic Council: Get West to Pay for Cleanup of Soviet Nuclear Dumping

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – That Moscow has clear plans for its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council has long been clear (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/11/moscow-likely-to-use-chairmanship-of.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/05/moscow-wants-to-sideline-ngos-and.html).

            Its long-term goal is to add a security dimension to the Arctic Council’s agenda (ng.ru/dipkurer/2021-05-23/9_8154_arctic.html), but its immediate goal is to get the members of the group to provide support for removing hazardous radioactive items the Soviet Union dumped in the Arctic, something Moscow has promised to do but clearly wants help in doing.

            Thomas Nilsen of The Barents Observer notes that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his first speech after Russia assumed the chairmanship called on member countries to send experts to a June 2022 meeting to discuss how to proceed on this question (mid.ru/documents/10180/4738915/Program.pdf/162fd928-a966-4b71-a87c-5c45b673432c and thebarentsobserver.com/en/nuclear-safety/2021/05/lifting-nuclear-waste-kara-sea-gets-priority-russias-arctic-council).

            As Nilsen points out, “no other places in the world’s oceans have more radioactive and nuclear waste than the Kara Sea. While mentality in Soviet times was «out of sight, out of mind», the Kara Sea seemed logical. Ice-covered most of the year, and no commercial activities. That is changing now with rapidly retreating sea ice, drilling for oil-, and gas and increased shipping.”

            Two years ago, the Arctic Council established a working group on radiation Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response” to look into the issue (oaarchive.arctic-council.org/bitstream/handle/11374/2443/EPPR_RAD-EG-Mandate-Final-Signed.pdf). And last year, Moscow announced plans to address the situation with EU help.

            But the willingness of the EU to provide sufficient funds is now in question given the sanctions regime and Moscow’s own funds appear to be too limited to meet the cost; and so now, it is directing its efforts to enlisting the help of the Arctic Council countries in order that the Arctic be cleaned up.

            The problem has a long history. During the last 30 years of Soviet power, Moscow dumped some 18,000 radioactive items in the Arctic Ocean. When retired Soviet naval captain Aleksandr Nikitin revealed that in a report for the Bellona environmental organization in 1996, he was charged but with treason but eventually acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court.

            In its 2020 announcement, Rosatom said it will remove two entire submarines and four reactor units from the Arctic floor but says other radioactive items pose little risk and will be left in place (tass.ru/ekonomika/9106663 and thebarentsobserver.com/ru/ekologiya/2020/08/v-rossiyskoy-arktike-zatopleny-neskolko-tysyach-yadernyh-obektov-teper-samye).

            According to Russia’s atomic energy agency then, these six objects account for 90 percent of the radioactive threat posed by the dumping in Soviet times with one of the objects, the K-27 submarine having been described by experts, The Barents Observer reports, as a potential “time bomb” as far as the release of radioactivity is concerned. 

            Rosatom and the European Commission said in 2020 the total cost for the operation which involves raising these objects from the sea floor, decommissioning them, and permanently storing the wastes will be approximately 300 million US dollars, with Moscow paying part of the cost and EU countries the remainder (http://nuclear-submarine-decommissioning.ru/node/1260).

            With EU funding problematic, Moscow clearly hopes to get Arctic Council countries to help pay for the problem that Moscow in its earlier incarnation as capital of the USSR created.  

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