Nils Bøhmer, a nuclear physicist and chief executive of the Bellona Foundation, told Norway's Dagbladet newspaper that several ships and submarines deserted in the Barents and Kara Seas could start to leak radioactive waste within as little as ten years.
“We fear what could be called a Chernobyl in slow motion, where radioactive waste seeps out into the sea.” he said. “The Radiation Protection Authority has estimated that it may start to leak in 10 to 15 years time.”
Bellona has been campaigning for action to deal with nuclear waste in neighbouring Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, in 1994 its report "Sources of Radioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Archangel Counties" alerted the world to the risks posted by decommissioned Soviet nuclear-powered submarines.
However, the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine has led Russia in December to effectively cancel the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, also known as Nunn-Lugar, under which it has worked with US Department of Defence personnel to try and keep the material safe.
The Soviet Union dumped vast amounts of nuclear waste in the Barents and Kara Seas in the decades leading up to its dissolution in 1991. In total it abandoned: 19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 with nuclear reactors, five of which contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery; 17,000 containers with radioactive waste; and three nuclear submarines.
Of these, the three submarines pose the worst risk, with the Business Insider news site warning that K-27 could cause a Chernobyl-like event if the casings of its reactors fail and radiation leaks into the sea.
The K-27 was an experimental design launched in 1962. While on duty in 1968, the reactor started leaking radiation, poisoning the crew. According to the BBC, nine seamen died of radiation poisoning immediately, while many more had their lives cut short.
The vessel was sunk in the Kara Sea in 1981 only 30 meters below sea level, far shallower than required by international guidelines.
The greatest direct risk to Norway is posed by the K-159 submarine, which sank on a journey from the town of Ostrovnoy in Russia's Murmansk region in 2003, just 200km from the Norwegian border, giving it the potential to contaminate some of the country's most valuable fisheries.
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The wreck was mapped by sonar in 2010 by the British subsea surveyors Adus Deep Ocean under a now aborted project to salvage the vessel.
Bøhmer says that the matter is urgent. ”I think we have a short time horizon to do something about this problem. Nuclear waste must be retrieved and stored on land where possible, or buried in the seabed before it is too late.”