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Russia revisits Cold War-era nuclear waste dumps in the Arctic

Alaska Dispatch

As plans for offshore drilling in Russia’s Arctic materialize, the nation is revisiting Cold War-era nuclear test sites to survey potential radiation hazards around areas of oil and gas exploration, the BBC reports.

Exxon Mobil and Russia’s energy giant Rosneft have already begun exploration in the remote Kara Sea, with seismic tests completed and the drilling of exploratory wells expected next year. But besides the 21.5 billion tons of fossil fuel reserves estimated to lie beneath the ocean floor, the sea also contains a huge quantity of nuclear waste dumped decades ago by the Soviet military.

In 1981, the ill-fated Soviet K-27 submarine was sunk in the Kara Sea following a nuclear leak from its experimental liquid-coolant nuclear engine. While officials say there is no radiation leak from the vessel so far, highly-enriched uranium in its reactors remains a potential time bomb for a nuclear accident. This year Russian officials are looking at whether the vessel can be lifted from the sea floor so that its uranium can be safely removed. 

Russia will be visiting other nuclear waste sites, too: In addition to the sunken sub, the Kara Sea contains 17,000 containers and 19 vessels with radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, and low-level liquid waste which was poured directly into the sea by the Soviet military.

However, both Rosneft and Exxon "are confident that we can safely drill in the Kara Sea and avoid hazards from radioactive materials on the seabed", Exxon Mobil told the BBC.

"It is standard industry practice to conduct extensive studies at and below the seabed" to check for hazards, the company said. Rosneft has also conducted a study concerning nuclear waste dumps in the sea.

While Arctic offshore drilling is subject to intense public scrutiny in the U.S., highlighted in part by the recent grounding of Shell's Kulluk vessel off of Kodiak Island in Alaska, “there is less public pressure” in Russia, Charles Emmerson, an Arctic specialist at the Chatham House think tank, told the BBC.

Russia is working to rapidly develop its Arctic oil reserves, a “strategic imperative” for the country which relies heavily on oil and gas exports, Emmerson explained. 

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