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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Norway, Russia at Odds Over Nuclear Cleanup

An agreement signed last week by Russia and Norway clears up some technical hitches delaying efforts to clean up the mess left behind by Russia's decaying nuclear submarine fleet in the arctic, but the two countries are still divided over how to proceed.

While radioactive waste and even more lethal spent nuclear fuel is already being removed from the 96 nuclear-powered submarines rusting in the waters of the Barents Sea, this has posed new problems because no clear decision has been made on what to do with the fuel.

Russian officials say waste and fuel have already been taken off 26 of the decommissioned submarines of the Russian Arctic Fleet that are moored along the coast next to the Norwegian border.

But the nuclear waste is piling up in storage facilities that all sides agree are inadequate, at a land base near the city of Murmansk and even on a floating facility.

Attempts to build proper storage facilities are mired in what some sources say is a growing disagreement between Moscow and Oslo over whether to store the fuel rods close to their current location in the Arctic or to transport them to the Ural Mountains.

Environmentalists say transporting the nuclear fuel to the Urals by train is dangerous and will prove prohibitively expensive. They also warn that the half-built facility in the secret Mayak atomic complex where the Nuclear Power Ministry wants to store the nuclear fuel is based on outdated technology that releases contaminated water into the environment.

"There are going to be some tough negotiations," said Yevgeny Kudryavtsev, a deputy department head at the Nuclear Power Ministry.

The environmental problem of the nuclear submarines has emerged as a key issue in the relationship between Russia and Norway, which share a 180-kilometer border. Norway has protested strongly against the harassment of Russian environmental campaigner Alexander Nikitin, who in 1996 first publicized the threat.

The agreement signed last week when Norway's King Harald V visited Russia removes some major obstacles that had been stalling the cleanup: It waives Norway's liability should an accident occur during cleanup and frees Norwegian assistance from taxes and custom tariffs.

For example, Norway, France and the European Union had provided $10 million for the purchase of specially designed robots to remove 550 especially hazardous damaged nuclear fuel rods from the dangerous floating Russian storage facility, called the Lepse. But the robots could not be imported because until last week's agreement they would have faced high taxes.

Olav Berstad, an official at the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry, said that Norway has already spent about half of the $60 million allocated to the cleanup and more money could be found if the program is successful, he said.

But Nils Bohner of the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian non-profit organization that has been monitoring the situation with nuclear safety in the Arctic since 1989, said that major problems are blocking the project.

Nuclear waste -- metal structures from the reactor, or any material that has been near or come into contact with a vessel's reactor -- is relatively easy to dispose of. It is not highly radioactive, and several storage facilities for this waste have, or are being built on the Kola peninsula.

The real difficulty is finding long-term storage facilities for the highly radioactive nuclear fuel from dismantled reactors.

There are no serviceable facilities on the Kola Peninsula for storing spent fuel rods -- the only two suitable facilities there suffered accidents in the 1980s and are scheduled for dismantling. All sides agree that the only facility at Andreyev Bay near Murmansk is dangerous.

Instead, Russia proposes shipping the fuel to a storage facility currently under construction at the Mayak complex in the Urals region of Chelyabinsk, an approach supported up to now by the Norwegian government which has promised to help pay for construction of the facility and pay for special railway wagons to transport the material. The facility involves building a water-cooled facility.

However, environmentalists say that Oslo is increasingly coming round to their opinion that the nuclear fuel should stay on the Kola peninsula and be stored in a brand new facility.

According to Thomas Nielsen of Bellona, the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Knut Volleb...k, addressing his country's parliament Friday, said that Norway no longer supported building the water-cooled reactor at Mayak, and that Oslo favored storing the waste in a new facility on the Kola peninsula.

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry could not immediately be reached Friday for confirmation of Volleb...k's remarks.

"We already have one storage facility started, why do we need to come up with something new?" Kudryavtsev said.

Environmentalists say that transporting highly radioactive material huge distances across Russia is too dangerous,that shipping all the waste would take up to 20 years, and that the operation would be prohibitively expensive.

In addition, they say that the water-cooled facility that Russia is building at Mayak to receive the fuel rods will not meet international safety standards, because the water then runs off into the environment. A consortium of Western engineering companies that conducted a study into the possibility of building a storage facility at Mayak reached the same conclusion.

"It takes so long for the train to travel to Mayak that it could take anywhere from 15 to 20 years to transport all the spent nuclear fuel" to Mayak, Bellona's Nielsen said. Keeping the waste on the Kola peninsula "is going to be much cheaper and a lot more environmentally sound," he said.

Another option that Oslo may be considering is to build an air-cooled storage facility -- considered safer -- at Mayak. The foreign consortium is currently conducting a feasibility study into this option and is expected to report on its findings by the end of June.

Even Russia admits that Mayak is not a solution for one particularly difficult problem. It is not willing to accept thousands of nuclear fuel rods that have been either chipped or bent or broken. No plan has been developed for them yet.