Urgent to lift dumped K-27 nuclear sub

The nuclear powered submarine K-27 was dumped east of Novaya Zemlya in 1982. Photo: Bellona

KIRKENES: The ill-fated Soviet submarine is not yet leaking radioactivity into the Kara Sea, according to scientists visiting the dumpsite. It is, however, urgent to raise the sub for safe decommissioning. Unique and very expensive equipment to dismantle K-27’s reactors is waiting at the naval base Gremikha, but will be outworn in few years’ time.


It is likely feasible to lift K-27 from the seabed. Although dumped 30 years ago, the hull of the submarine is intact. K-27 was examined by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with video camera by the experts onboard the Norwegian, Russian expedition  to Stepovogo bay.

“No corrosion damage of the outer hull was visible,” says Hilde Elise Heldal with the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research to BarentsObserver after the expedition arrived at the Norwegian port of Kirkenes on Monday.

Russian experts have earlier warned about danger of a restarting chain reaction if seawater comes in contact with the uranium fuel in the reactor core. The risk is higher because the fuel consists of highly enriched uranium. Others are afraid a lifting could cause serious shaking of the old submarine and by that start a chain reaction. If so, radioacivity could leak out and contaminate the marine life.

No experts on raising the sub
The Norwegian, Russian expedition has been planned for years. There were, however, not anyone of the team onboard “R/V Ivan Petrov” with expertise on studying how to lift the submarine. Or knowledge on checking the strength of hull.

“Our mission was to study the radiation levels in the area around the submarine. We had no specialists who could examin the technical condition,” says Deputy head of Roshydromet, Igor Shumakov to BarentsObserver.  

Russian co-expedition leader Aleksandr Nikitin says the reactor compartment was secured properly before K-27 was scuttled at a depth of 30 meters in the Stepovogo bay on the east side of Novaya Zemlya in 1982.

“Furfulor and other materials were used to isolate the reactors in order to prevent leakages of radioactivity,” says Nikitin. “We are, however, discussing the possibility of raising K-27.”

No contamination
The researchers have taken samples of water, sediments and marine life in and around the area where K-27 is resting. Results available so far indicate no serious leakages of radioactivity. Levels of Cesium-137 are lower today than last time an joint Norwegian, Russian expedition was allowed into the dumping area 18 years ago. 

“We measured less than 5 Bq/kg of Cesium-137 in the sediments near the submarine,” says Hilde Elise Heldal. That is slightly higher than background. Final results from the expedition will be announced in a joint scientific report next year.

Fatal reactor accident
Dumping the entire submarine was in the earlie 80ies seen as the best possible solution following years of attempts to repair the damaged reactor. The accident happend when the sub was on patrol in Arctic waters back in 1968. Nine crewmembers died from radiation sickness after attempt to repair the reactor.  

K-27 was a unique proto-type submarine sailing for the Soviet Union’s Northern fleet, based on the Kola Peninsula. The two reactors powering the sub were the first ever to be cooled with liquid-metal. This technique was later also used onboard the Alfa-class submarines.

Liquid-metal (lead and bismuth) is solidifying when the reactor is turned off, and the spent uranium fuel in the core can therefore not be removed by standard means. The fuel rods are simply stucked in the solid metal.

No other of the Soviet Union’s nearly 250 nuclear powered submarines had such special reactors.

Expensive equipment waiting for K-27
With financing from the French Commissariat for Atomic Energy (CEA), decommissioning equipment and infrastructure for emptying the liquid-metal cooled reactors of the Alfa-class submarines were placed in Gremikha. The closed-down base is remote located far east on the Kola Peninsula’s coast to the Barents Sea. 

Tens of millions of euros are invested in infrastructure for the dry-dock SD-10 in Gremikha where the reactor cores have been unloaded and stored before transported away.

The last Alfa-sub reactor-core was taken care off and transported away from Gremikha last year. Now, the French sponsored equipment can be used to unload the damaged reactor core from K-27.

“We are partly in hurry,” says a source close to the Gremikha project, who declined to be named, to BarentsObserver.

 “The equipment in Gremikha to unload (liquid metal cooled) reactor cores will be outworn if not taken care off. K-27 is the last remaining submarine with such reactors and if it is not taken in for decommissioning soon, it might be too late.”

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has simultaneously granted €12 million to Russia’s Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (RIAR) to receive and store the reactor cores that is removed from Gremikha.

Moscow’s agenda
When Russia now is calling on international attention to K-27 as a possible radioactive “time-bomb” it is closely linked with the time-frame that will be open for a few years before the existing infrastructure in Gremikha will become outworn. 

The hope is to trigger international funding to raise the submarine and bring it back to shore for proper dismantling. 

Russia dumped, Norway grants
State Secretary in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Torgeir Larsen, keeps the door open for possible Norwegian contribution.

“Lifting is and will remain a Russian responsibility, but we are ready to cooperate with Russia on inter-survey and risk-assessments,” Torgeir Larsen told BarentsObserver two weeks ago.

K-27 was an important issue both at the Norwegian, Russian annual meeting in the Commission for Nuclear Safety in St. Petersburg in mid-September and at the Environmental Commission meeting that took place at Svanvik last week.

Since the mid-90ies, Norway has granted some NOK 1,5 billion (€200 million) for nuclear safety project in the Russian part of the Barents Region. The Kara Sea expedition this autumn was also sponsored by Norway.

In November, the “K-27 case” will be discussed at an international conferance on nuclear safety in Moscow, arranged by Norway, Sweden and Russia.