Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2015
By Kelly Lundeen
US and European Union sanctions on Russia have forced our own ExxonMobil out of an offshore Arctic drilling deal with Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft. The company’s macabre plans would result in drilling next to an area used as a Soviet nuclear waste dump site for decades. The Kara Sea has so far been the loser in a battle between those who want to exploit its underwater gas and oil, and those who want radioactive waste materials removed and the ecologically delicate waters protected from the perils of drilling. However, the sanctions—resulting from Russia’s incursions in Ukraine—have left the world’s top oil-producing nation alone in the Arctic without its corporate partner, ExxonMobil, upon whom it depended for necessary extraction infrastructure.
In 2014, prior to enactment of sanctions, ExxonMobil and Rosneft began drilling the first well in the Kara Sea, but Exxon had to abandon its plans for partnering with the Russian firm when sanctions took effect. In January, without Western technology and capital, Rosneft announced that drilling would come to a halt for the 2015 season due to lack of a platform. It is currently seeking one from alternate contractors. Rosneft expects to resume drilling next year and hopes that consumer production will begin as early as 2020.
So, how is it possible that nuclear submarines, reactors, and waste containers were secretly dumped in the sea through the 1990s? This was common for dozens of countries until the 1972 London Convention banned marine disposal of radioactive and other wastes. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union did not become party to the Convention until the late ‘80s, and did not stop dumping until the early ‘90s.
Is offshore drilling next to a radioactive waste dump really all that dangerous? Not according to Exxon and Rosneft, especially when the reserves are estimated to contain the equivalent of nearly five years of global oil consumption. Following a study on the radioactive waste site, Rosneft and ExxonMobil stated they “are confident that we can safely drill in the Kara Sea and avoid hazards from radioactive materials on the seabed.” The nuclear waste disposed of is known to include 14 reactors, 19 ships carrying solid waste, high-level radioactive waste fuel and 17,000 containers whose radioactive contents is unknown.
To help sink the containers carrying radioactive waste, the Soviets followed another norm of the era by shooting holes in them, and there is evidence of leakage from the some of the containers. But the most potentially disastrous object left at the bottom of the Kara Sea is the K-27 nuclear submarine, scuttled in 1981. In 1968, nine sailors were killed in the ship by a leak in the reactor. This nuclear submarine was carrying highly enriched uranium when it was dumped. The corrosion of the propulsion reactor, which occurs naturally under water, could reportedly lead to an atomic chain reaction that would affect an area beyond just the Arctic.
Norway, along with Germany and other Western governments driven to protect its neighboring Barents Sea, has been trying to help Russia clean up the radioactive wastes in the area for a decade. The Russian government however has no definite plans to completely remove the nuclear-powered submarines or other wastes. This is no easy feat, as shown by the CIA’s 1974 Project Azorian, in which an attempt to recover a submarine from a seabed resulted in two thirds of the sub breaking off.
At least temporarily, the dump site will be left to its own natural deterioration without the assistance of offshore drilling in the nearby waters. While economic sanctions provide temporary relief from drilling, the long-term problem of cleaning up remains an unresolved issue. And it is not a matter of whether or not there will be large-scale radioactive leak, but of when.
—Reuters, Apr. 9, 2015; Moscow Times, Nov. 13, 2014; New York Times, Oct. 29, 2014; BBC, Jan. 25, 2013; Bloomberg, Sept. 25, 2012