Time to lift dumped submarine

Expedition team ready for Kara Sea radiation survey. From the left Hilde Elise Heldal, Bjørn Lind, Vyacheslav Shershakov and Aleksandr Nikitin. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

KIRKENES: K-27 was dumped in the Kara Sea in 1982 following a serious reactor accident that killed nine crew members. A joint Norwegian, Russian expedition now sails from Kirkenes to study how to lift the submarine safely before radiation starts to leak into the Arctic Seas.


The expedition setting sails with the vessel “Ivan Petrov” is the first joint radiation monitoring voyage with international researchers to the Kara Sea since 1994. For the last 18 years, only Russian scientists have been allowed to monitor radiation levels in the waters east of Novaya Zemlya. 

Norwegian radiation authorities is glad Russia finally allows such research voyage into the waters of the dumped reactors.

“It is important for us to get some insight about the current condition of the dumped submarine K-27, says Per Strand, director for Emergency Preparedness and Environmental Radioactivity.

One year delayed 
Last year’s planned expedition with Norwegians was cancelled due to bureaucratic delays from Russian authorities.

Seven Norwegian researchers from various institutions working with nuclear safety will cooperate with the eight Russian researchers onboard the vessel “Ivan Petrov” over the next month. An observer from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also onboard.

““It will be exciting to study the dumped radioactive objects and the surrounding sea floor. But it is also important for the Norwegian fishing industry, amongst others, to survey the general levels of pollution in an ocean so close to the Barents Sea, says Hilde Elise Heldal with the Institute of Marine Research. She is Norwegian co-expedition leader.

Low contamination levels
The conclusions from the three joint Norwegian, Russian monitoring expeditions to the Kara Sea in the early 90ies showed low levels of radioactive contamination.

Russian co-expedition leader Aleksandr Nikitin says to BarentsObserver that the preliminary test results will be ready as the vessel sails. “But, the final results will first be published next year, after samples of water, sediments and marine life is analyzed in both Norwegian and Russian laboratories.”

World’s largest dumping area at sea
The Kara Sea was until 1992 the main dumping area for solid radioactive waste from both the Soviet Union’s nuclear navy and civilian nuclear powered icebreakers with homeports on the Kola Peninsula. Liquid radioactive waste was dumped in the Barents Sea.

In total, some 17,000 containers with solid radioactive waste were dumped at sea in the Arctic. It is however the dumped nuclear reactors that poses the most serious risk to the marine environment. 16 reactors are dumped in the Kara Sea, mainly in shallow waters. A reactor with uranium spent nuclear fuel is tens of thousands times more radioactive than a container with low-level radioactive waste. Six of the reactors were dumped with spent fuel.

Damaged nuclear reactors
All reactors were dumped following accidents contaminating the sections so much it was considered too difficult to repair. At port, the reactors posed a radiation threat to people; therefore they were cut out from the submarines and dumped at sea. Last submarine reactor was dumped in 1988.

In 1982, an entire submarine with two reactors was dumped in the Stepovogo bay east of Novaya Zemlya.

The submarine, named, K-27 was the first Soviet submarine to be equipped with liquid metal cooled reactors. One of the two reactors was stroked by a serious reactor accident in 1968 when nine of the crew members died of high radiation doses. After years of unsuccessful attempts to repair the reactor it was finally decided it was easier to just dump it. Before dumping, the reactor compartment was filled with a solidifying mixture to avoid leakages of radiation. 

K-27, will get special attention from the researchers onboard “Ivan Petrov” this autumn. 

Arctic nuclear cleanup
The Norwegian and Russian scientists will for the first time jointly study the possibilities to lift the submarine from the seabed and bring it safely back to a yard on the Kola Peninsula for final decommissioning.

“K-27 is one of two submarines on the Arctic seabed that Russia has proposed to lift,” says Yuri Peshkov, Department Director in Roshydromet.

The proposal will later be examined by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Contact Expert Group, a team consisting of both Russian and European partners working with nuclear safety projects in Northwest-Russia.

Who will pay?
Asked by BarentsObserver about funding to a possible lifting operation of K-27, expedition co-leader Vyacheslav Shershakov, Director General of Typhoon research institute says “We are always glad when other countries provide funding.”

“It is however not we as scientists that consider requests for such funding. That is Rosatom, Russia’s State Nuclear Corporation.”

Per Strand with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities will not promise any Norwegian funding to lift K-27 from the seabed. “Funding is something that will be considered afterwards. Firstly, an environmental impact assessment study must be developed.”

Lifting can cause accident
Although the submarine is dumped at a depth of just 33 meters a lifting operation is can cause a serious accident. The haul of the submarine has been exposed to seawater and corroded for 30 years. The researchers onboard “Ivan Petrov” do therefor bring a ROV for underwater video examining the sub’s current shape.

If the sealing on the reactor section were to fail during an attempt to lift the submarine, radioactive material still inside the reactors could leak out. These particular liquid metal cooled reactors on K-27 have fuel of a very high enrichment, up to 95 percent. Therefor there is a possibility that fuel in contact with water might go critical, causing a uncontrolled chain-reaction and large releases of radioactivity.