Nuclear waste ship makes unprecedented port call at Novaya Zemlya

The “Rossita” at Atomflot in Murmansk. This base for maintenance of Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers could also serve as a transit-hub for shipping nuclear waste to remote Arctic locations. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

“I am deeply worried if Russia has started to move nuclear waste from the Kola Peninsula to the Arctic archipelago,” says Frederic Hauge with the Bellona foundation.

Last week, the “Rossita” could be seen on ship tracking services as it sailed outside Gremikha, a shutdown submarine base east on the Kola Peninsula. Now, the specially designed ship is moored at the pier in Severny, a military town on the shores of the Matochkin Strait diving the northern and southern islands of Novaya Zemlya

Severny is the settlement serving Russia’s nuclear weapons tests, nowadays in the form of sub-critical experiments taking place deep inside tunnels in the permafrost mountains. The last real detonation of a nuclear warhead was on October 24, 1990. 

The “Rossita” was built in Italy with Italian taxpayers money. It was a helping hand from a European nation aimed to transport spent nuclear fuel from the run-down storage site in Andreeva Guba on the shores of the Litsa fjord, a short 60 km from the border with Norway.

Some 21,000 spent fuel elements from the Soviet Union’s fleet of Cold War submarines were stored. Italy’s contributions were part of a larger international cooperation to assist Russia in securing the lethal highly radioactive waste.

Other contributing nations were Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

The “Rossita” shuttled between Andreeva Bay and Atomflot in Murmansk. From there, the containers with the fuel elements were sent by train to Mayak north of Chelyabinsk where Russia’s reprocessing plant is located.

With Moscow’s all-out war against Ukraine, the Western partners stopped all cooperation with Russia in regard to nuclear waste handling.

For the last 19 months, little information about what happens in Andreeva Bay has reached the public. 

What is known is that two of the Northern Fleet’s most potent nuclear-powered submarines, the “Severodvinsk” and the “Kazan” of the Yasen class are moored across the bay at the piers in Nerpicha, part of Zapadnaya Litsa naval base. 

“All reasons to monitor” 

Frederic Hauge is head of the Bellona Foundation. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

Frederic Hauge with the Bellona Foundation in Norway will not speculate too much about reasons Russia might have to move nuclear waste to the Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya. 

“What we do know is that “Rossita” is specially designed to carry TUK-18 containers modified to hold damaged spent nuclear fuel,” he says.

Much of the remaining uranium fuel elements in Andreeva Guba are damaged and pose special problems to handle. For that reason, the reprocessing plant in Mayak has been unwilling to receive. 

“There are all reasons to monitor what now happens at Novaya Zemlya,” Hauge notes. 

His team of nuclear experts in Oslo and Vilnius are now analyzing the limited available information with the hope of understanding what happens. 

“A week ago, Rosatom’s larger carrier “Sevmorput” sailed to Novaya Zemlya. We are also told that there have been busy days at Severny and near the tunnels designed for nuclear weapons testing,” Hauge says in a phone interview with the Barents Observer. 

“The big unanswered question is if what we now are witnessing is a Russia that brings dangerous nuclear waste to Novaya Zemlya for long-term storage in the permafrost.”

Related stories from around the North:

CanadaNuclear power no solution for the N.W.T., some experts suggest, CBC News

Russia: Russia grants funding for Arctic nuclear waste ship, The Independent Barents Observer

Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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