Are the dumped nuclear reactors leaking?

Norway, Russia send joint expedition to the dump sites for submarine reactors in the Kara Sea this summer. Will it be safe to lift the old reactors and bring them safely onshore?


A total of 16 naval reactors were dumped east of Novaya Zemlya during the Soviet period.

Reactors were dumped because accidents with them caused high levels of radiation. Naval yards in Severodvinsk and along the coast of the Kola Peninsula wouldn’t dare to keep them stored near populated areas, nor less to decommission them in a proper way.

The “easy” solution was simply to dump them in remote Arctic waters.

Most scaring are the six reactors that were dumped with their highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel still onboard.

In the early 90ties, several expeditions with Norwegian and Russian radiation experts onboard sailed to the dump-sites in the Kara Sea. Their findings were just partly without worries. Some samples indicated small leakages in the near vicinity of the reactors, while some reactors were not found.

The last joint Norwegian, Russian expedition to the Kara Sea took place in 1994. Since then, only Russian scientists have been given permission to enter the dump-sites areas.

This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) holds a workshop in Oslo with participants from several of the countries involved in nuclear safety operations in northwest-Russia. The objective is to initiate further investigation on sunken submarines and reactors in the Arctic Oceans and strategies to solve the problems.

The Norwegian Radiation Protection Agency reports today that the goal is to send a new joint expedition to the sites of dumped reactors and sunken submarines. Such expedition will take place later this year, and is supposed to include Norwegian and Russian team members in addition to experts from IAEA.

The big question is: Will it be possible to lift the sunken reactors and bring them safely back to a naval yard without releases of radioactivity?

In the 90ties nobody demanded to lift the Kara Sea dumped reactors. Those days, experts and the public were far more concerned about the 120 rusty nuclear powered submarines that were laid-up at the different naval bases and shipyards on the coast of the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk. Today, most of the old laid up subs are decommissioned and their reactors are safely stored onshore in the Saida bay, west of Murmansk.

Read all about nuclear safety in the special section at BarentsObserver.

In addition to the 16 reactors dumped in the Kara Sea, the expedition this summer will examine the radionuclide situation around the K-159, a old nuclear powered submarine that sank outside the inlet to Kola bay in August 2003.

Read moreRusty submarine remains on the seabed

K-159, with its two reactors with spent nuclear fuel, lays on the seabed in one of the most important fishing grounds of the Barents Sea.

Another interesting sunken submarine is the Komsomolets, that sank 160 kilometres south of the Bear Island in April 1989. That submarine has one reactor and two plutonium-bombs onboard, but are far to deep to ever be lifted.

Read also20 years since Komsomolets sank