By Kelly Lundeen
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2018-19
In a new twist on global warming, glaciers containing radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing are melting and releasing the radioactivity into the seas. This fall Russian researchers aboard the Akademik Keldysh set out to Novaya Zemlya, the largest Russian Arctic archipelago in the far north, where the rapidly-melting glaciers have been found to be radioactive.
Novaya Zemlya is shrouded in secrecy and closed off to almost everyone but the armed forces. It is the site of the 58-megaton H-bomb test code-named “Tsar bomb” on October 30, 1961—the largest nuclear explosion ever detonated on Earth, one of 86 nuclear weapons tests on the island from 1957 to 1962.
In the Kara Sea off the northern coast of Russia and east of Novaya Zemlya is a radioactive waste dumping area where 16 Russian nuclear reactors (six of them still containing the high-level radioactive waste fuel), 17,000 containers of rad’ waste, and 17 entire ships and barges loaded with rad’ waste were sunk clandestinely by the Soviet Union between 1960 and 1990.
This radioactive dumping ground was the primary object of the research team on the Akademik Keldysh. The team’s preliminary studies concluded that the containers are not leaking yet. However, one glacier on Novaya Zemlya near the weapons test site was found to hold large “concentrations of radioactivity,” according to deputy director of the Institute of Oceanology, Mikhail Flint. The researcher refused to divulge the exact amount and acknowledged only that in “parts of the moving glacier there were found doses that twice exceeded that baseline level on Novaya Zemlya.”
At the time of the above-ground weapons testing, the predominant wind direction was to the north, dispersing radioactive fallout across the glacial ice of the island—ice that is now melting “at record speeds” according to researchers.
The expedition also noted the terminus of one glacier had retreated 1.2 miles from its previous location only four years ago when they measured it in 2014.
In 2016, a Polish study warned of the high possibility of the release of radioactivity stored in Arctic glaciers due to increased melting. Later that year, Russian oceanographers found that traces of radionuclides from the Novaya Zemlya bomb tests had reached the Arctic Ocean, which is north of the Kara and Barents Seas.