The K-159 submarine before it sank during a failed attempt to move it in 2004. It is only a matter of years before nuclear waste starts to leak. Photo: Bellona Foundation
The situation is so serious that the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority have asked the country’s foreign ministry to intervene.
“The Russians have analysed their half of the samples, so we know the result, but we want to have samples in Norway as well, so we can do our own analysis,” Inger Margrethe Eikelmann, who heads the NRPA’s northern division, told The Local. “Then the trouble started when we tried to get permission to transplant the samples back from Russia.”
K-159 sank in 2003 along with an estimated 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel. It had spent the preceding 14 years since its retirement in 1989 berthed in the military port of Ostrovnoy, becoming so rusty that according to Norwegian environmental campaign group Bellona, its outer hull in places had the “strength of foil”.
Eikelmann led the team of Norwegian researchers who participated in a joint expedition with the Russians to the wreck last autumn.
“The samples showed that there was not any leakage from the submarine,” she said of the analysis carried out last year by her Russian colleagues.
She said she had no reason to doubt the Russian conclusions.
“We have been working very closely with them for many years and we are exchanging samples and data every year, so we know that they do a good job with the analysis and the presentation of the results, but we want to finish this project by having a joint report on the expedition.”
Eikelmann said that the Russian authorities had now told NRPA that they would release the water samples and impounded equipment in August, but had yet to provide a set date for the release of the sediment and fish samples.
The poor state of the submarine’s hull, which lies just 130km from Norway’s northern border, means that Russian authorities have only a matter of years to take action if they want to avoid an environmental catastrophe, she argued.
“Today it’s OK, but it’s very rusty and it was not prepared for dumping, so in some years something has to be done,” she said. “Of course, there’s also the option not to do anything but I think that will be dangerous in the future.”
She said the submarine, could either be lifted or buried under an underwater shield to prevent radiation leaking out from the wreck once the seawater reached the spent fuel.