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Nuclear watchdog expects more secret voyages

This photo taken two years ago shows heavily armed special police forces in at port in Poland guarding the containers with the uranium fuel before it is onloaded to the vessel sailing it to Murmansk via the coast of Norway. Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration.

Heavily armed forces guard the weapon-grade uranium from terrorists before departure, but such potentially deadly cargo can continue to be shipped northbound towards Murmansk when Norway’s radiation watchdog is sleeping.

Location

BarentsObserver could yesterday tell the story about last week’s top secret voyage of nuclear waste from Europe to Russia’s Arctic port of Murmansk. 

Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities had no knowledge about the nuclear voyage before being asked by BarentsObserver to give a comment. Then, the vessel “Mikhail Dudin” had sailed along Norway’s long coastline for nearly five days and had already delivered its cargo in Murmansk.

“We have no information about any shipment of nuclear waste outside the coast of Norway last week,” NRPA Director Ole Harbitz said.

In Murmansk, information about the nuclear waste arrival was first made public by the non-governmental organization Kola Ecological Center. The group is highly concerned about the radiation safety risk such cargo poses to the city’s 300,000 inhabitants. Maybe for good reasons; similar cargo is expected to arrive again.

“We cannot exclude further similar shipments,” says Eldri Holo with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities to BarentsObserver on Thursday.

She says it is desirable that the country from where the nuclear waste is exported informs the coastal states where the shipment is passing. “This would be in line with the recommendations given by the Council of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” says Eldri Holo.

The cargo of nuclear waste that made port call to Murmansk this week reportedly comes from a former Soviet designed research reactor in the Czeck Republic, and is part of the US, Russian cooperation Global Partnership. The aim is to organize shipments of highly-enriched uranium back to Russia to avoid it from ending up in terrorists’ hands.

Security and guarding is a top priority when a load of nuclear waste is sent. In Poland, heavily armed officers guard every steps of such transports. The spent nuclear fuel from the Czeck Republic is likely transported to harbor in Poland before re-loaded for sea transport. But, outside the coast of Norway, the cargo could sail without any special attention from the country’s nuclear watchdog.

Some of the uranium fuel from Soviet designed research reactors sent back to Russia in recent years are weapon-grade and could potentially shake the world if ending up in wrong hands. 

Soviet designed research reactors have often used weapon-grade uranium.

First shipment from Europe to Murmansk took place in 2009. Also that shipment came as a surprise for the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities that first was informed about it by BarentsObserver. 

Due to the nature of secrecy, no information is made available about when next load of nuclear waste under the Global Partnership agreement will set northbound sails towards Murmansk.

After unloaded in Murmansk, the containers with nuclear fuel is sent by rail to Mayak, Russia’s reprocessing plant just north of Chelyabinsk in the South Urals.