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No deal on nuclear accident warning

Loaded with nuclear missiles, the nuclear powered submarine "Yekaterinburg" was seriously hit by a fire while in dry-dock at the naval yard Roslyakova north of Murmansk on December 29th, 2011.

It is one and a half year since the fire onboard the Russian nuclear powered submarine “Yekaterinburg”, but still highly unclear if Norway will be informed if similar accidents happens again. The issue will be a hot potato at next week’s Barents Summit.

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Residents in Northern Norway were shaken by fear when the nuclear missile sub “Yekaterinburg” was hit by fire while in dry-dock north of Murmansk on December 29th, 2011. The submarine was loaded with nuclear warheads and two nuclear reactors. The fire triggered concerns of possible radioactive leakages.

“We said it at that time, we say it today, and we will repeat it at next occasion; Norway must be informed when such accidents involving nuclear installation happens,” says State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry Torgeir Larsen. 

Larsen raised the question on Monday when the Norwegian, Russian Commission on nuclear and radiation safety cooperation met in Kirkenes, Norway’s bordertown to Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

A 1993 agreement between the two countries outline joint obligations to inform about such event when they happen. Russia, however, find it hard to say that military nuclear installations is a part of the deal. Most nuclear installations on the Kola Peninsula are military, including the Northern fleet’s nuclear powered naval vessels and storage sites for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. 

Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities (NRPA) was informed by the media about the serious submarine fire in December 2011 and first got confusing messages from Moscow when they asked for details. 

NRPA Director Ole Harbitz participated at yesterday’s joint nuclear safety commission. “It is important for us to get official information, even if social media or BarentsObserver are the first to report about such accidents,” Ole Harbitz said to BarentsObserver during one of the coffee-breaks at the meeting. 

State Secretary Torgeir Larsen said at the press-conference after the commission meeting that the issue will be raised to top level when Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev next Monday meets with his Norwegian counterpart Jens Stoltenberg at the Barents Summit in Kirkenes.

“We don’t expect a final agreement to be signed at next week’s meeting between the Prime Ministers, but our clear hope and expectation is to get a top-level signal that the issue will be solved.”

Head of the Russian delegation to the joint nuclear safety commission, Rosatom Director Oleg Kryukov, says there is no need to make this an uptight question.

“Let the experts work in peace and quiet, so we will find a solution,” Kryukov said at the press conference. The aim is to find a way to expand the wording in the current agreement so that it also could include non-Rosatom nuclear installations, like the Ministry of Defense. Rosatom is in charge of Russia’s civilian nuclear power plants and the Murmansk fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers. 

In addition to the current 1993 bi-lateral agreement on sharing information in case of accidents involving nuclear installations, Russia has also signed the international convention on informing neighboring countries about accidents. The convention says that warnings should be issued when there is a situation where: “A release of radioactive material occurs or is likely to occur and which has resulted or may result in an international transboundary release that could be of radiological safety significance for another State.”