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Oil exploration in Russian Arctic shines light on dumped nuclear waste

12 March 2013

A BBC report has claimed Russia is having to carry out a nuclear waste recovery programme in the seas to the north of the country to ensure oil and gas exploration in the area can proceed without undue risk.

Russian oil giant Rosneft and its US partner Exxon Mobil have undertaken seismic tests in the area, and the former estimates offshore fossil fuel reserves to be close to 21.5bn tonnes. Drilling of exploratory wells is likely to begin in 2014. 

The first target is K-27, an experimental submarine whose reactors leaked and poisoned some of the crew. In 1981 the Soviet navy scuttled it off Novaya Zemlya, 30m beneath the surface.

Last year a joint Norwegian-Russian expedition examined the wreck with a remotely operated vehicle and the Russian authorities want to see if K-27 can be safely raised so that the uranium inside its reactors can be removed.

Other sunk Soviet nuclear submarines include the the K-159, in international waters at the bottom of the Barents Sea, and the K-278 Komsomolets in the Norwegian Sea, thought to be too deep to be salvaged.

Official figures show that the Soviet military dumped a huge quantity of nuclear waste in the Kara Sea: 17,000 containers and 19 ships carrying solid waste, as well as 14 nuclear reactors, five of which contain hazardous spent fuel. 

Norwegian experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are satisfied that there is no evidence of a radiation leak. But Ingar Amundsen, an official at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), says more checks are needed. The risk of a leak through seawater corrosion hangs over the future – and that would be especially dangerous in the case of K-27, he told the BBC.

However, both Rosneft and ExxonMobil said they were confident they could safely drill in the Kara Sea and avoid hazards from radioactive materials on the seabed.

Norway’s Statoil and Eni of Italy have set up joint ventures with Rosneft to explore in the Barents Sea, next to the Kara Sea, where the Soviet Union also dumped liquid waste. 

Statoil will invest about $2.5 billion in initial exploration with Rosneft, including additional areas in the Sea of Okhotsk. “We do not expect nuclear waste issues to hinder the joint exploration,” Statoil spokesman Baard Glad Pedersen told Bloomberg.



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