While Russia’s nuclear bombers have recently set the West abuzz by probing NATO’s air defenses, a far more certain danger currently lurks beneath the frigid Arctic waters off Russia’s northern coast — a toxic boneyard for Soviet nuclear ships and reactors whose containment systems are gradually wearing out.
Left to decay at the bottom of the ocean, the world is facing a worst case scenario described as “an Arctic underwater Chernobyl, played out in slow motion,” according to Thomas Nilsen, an editor at the Barents Observer newspaper and a member of a Norwegian watchdog group that monitors the situation.
According to a joint Russian-Norwegian report issued in 2012, there are 17,000 containers of nuclear waste, 19 rusting Soviet nuclear ships and 14 nuclear reactors cut out of atomic vessels at the bottom of the Kara Sea.
When the Soviets first began dumping the spent nuclear fuel, the disposal method was standard practice across the globe.
“Most nuclear states had similar practices before the early 1970s,” including the U.S. navy, Dr. Eugene Miasnikov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental studies told The Moscow Times.
But while other nations abandoned the practice of dumping radioactive waste at sea, the Soviet Union continued to do so until its collapse in 1991, and did so in larger volumes than other nuclear powers.
In the case of a nuclear reaction, this does not mean that a nuclear explosion may take place in the Kara Sea, but instead create a Chernobyl-like event in which super-hot nuclear fuel will escape its reactor and emit massive levels of radiation into the environment.
Beyond the Kara Sea, there are at least two more Soviet nuclear submarines with dangerous reactors. The K-159 in the Barents Sea and the K-278 in the Norwegian Sea. The K-278, also known as the Komsomolets, is considered to have settled too deep for salvage.
The K-159 went down in 2003 while it was being towed to the town of Polyarny — home of Russia’s primary shipyard used for servicing and decommissioning nuclear powered vessels — for dismantling. Nine sailors died trying to keep it afloat when a storm hit, ripping off makeshift pontoons welded to the side to ensure the porous rusting hull didn’t sink en route. Estimates place around 800 kilograms of spent uranium fuel aboard the K-159, according to Bellona.
Read more at Sunken Soviet Submarines Threaten Nuclear Catastrophe in Russia’s Arctic