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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Place for Nuclear Secrets

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A brouhaha began brewing in the Arctic a couple of weeks ago, as the Norwegian public was buffeted with news of a new scientific study pointing to nuclear dangers at an old Russian naval base located on the Kola Peninsula, about 50 kilometers from the Norwegian border. Some Russian officials responded by labeling the study a "provocation."

In fact, the risk of a nuclear accident at the Andreyeva Bay base is very small but not nonexistent. Assurances by State Duma Deputy Valentin Luntsevich that control systems "provide a 99.9 percent guarantee that no explosion can take place" are cold comfort when the 0.1 percent remainder represents the chance of a grave nuclear incident.

The real issue is not simply whether Russia's nuclear legacy is still dangerous. It is whether Russia will finally share all of the information necessary to make wise decisions on handling the problem. Promises Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg received during a four-day visit to Russia at the beginning of June that the removal of spent nuclear fuel from Andreyeva Bay would begin in 2010 leave open the question of whether the information needed to repackage the fuel safely is available. A further question is what will happen to the nuclear fuel after it is moved.

The Soviet Union built 250 nuclear-powered submarines and 14 other nuclear-powered vessels; more than 200 of these vessels have already been taken out of active service. Russia also inherited huge quantities of radioactive wastes and nuclear fuel. There are over 1 million metric tons of radioactive equipment containing over 80 million Curies in total radioactivity in Northwest Russia alone (the Chernobyl accident, by comparison, reportedly released some 50 million Curies of radioactive substances). Much of this material is at Andreyeva Bay, where nuclear fuel from about 100 submarine reactors has been stored for decades. Given its proximity to the Norwegian border, it is no wonder that for more than a decade Oslo has been trying to get information about Andreyeva, improve site security and safety, and stop the continuous release of radiation into the environment.

Although a lot of work has been done and there are more data on Andreyeva available than for any other nuclear site in Russia, foreign experts assisting at the site still do not have enough information to be sure that projects are being undertaken in the safest possible way and risks minimized to the maximum possible extent. Someone looking for success stories might point to a $800,000 Norwegian project from 1999 to 2000 to divert a brook so that it no longer flowed under a leaking spent nuclear fuel storage site, carrying radioactive materials toward the sea. But there are no hard data to be sure that the project actually succeeded in preventing contamination from entering the local fjord. Even the detailed map of the area that the Murmansk governor personally gave Stoltenberg during this month's visit -- a map of radiation levels that Norway paid for some years ago but that was never transferred to Oslo--leaves many questions unanswered.

The Andreyeva cleanup is now a major focus of the group of eight global partnership against the spread of weapons and materials of mass destruction, and as such is receiving a great deal of attention and money. In addition Norway, Britain, Italy, Sweden and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have been cooperating with Russia to secure the site, improve nuclear safety and repair infrastructure so that they can tackle the immense task of removing the nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes -- a job likely to take until 2023. There are about 21,000 nuclear fuel assemblies in Andreyeva that were stored in unsafe conditions, including some out in the open air, for decades. According to the new study by leading Russian nuclear institutes published in Atomic Energy, recent examinations of the nuclear fuel storage tanks at Andreyeva indicate that they have been contaminated by salt water, accelerating corrosion of the fuel assemblies inside and increasing risks of a criticality incident -- an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.

Russia's foreign partners have long been concerned about this danger and have carried out criticality studies in cooperation with Russia to try to minimize this risk. The recent Atomic Energy article, though, appears to be based on additional data to which Russia's partners have not had access. Asking for this information is not a "provocation," but the result of genuine concern. The consequences of a criticality incident -- venting radiation into both the surrounding territory and the Barents Sea -- would have to be dealt with for decades to come. Any measures that could further minimize this risk should be taken.

Russia's commitment to remove the fuel is welcome, but the process should not be rushed. The highest risks will come when the fuel is moved. Furthermore, careful consideration must be given to what to do with the fuel after it leaves Andreyeva: The reprocessing facility at Mayak is not yet ready to handle the fuel. If Mayak is ordered to accept the nuclear assemblies before a program is in place to put them in safe storage, the fuel is likely to sit in a storage pond there, endangering the already badly damaged local environment. Moscow needs to make a decision on the long-term disposition of this fuel, and share that decision with its partners so that they can help ensure that removing it from Andreyeva is helping to solve -- and not just hide -- the problem.

As President Vladimir Putin, who is often blamed for resurrecting old Soviet traditions of secrecy, himself said a few years ago, it is important to "ensure national security interests and maintain the necessary secrecy regime, [but] excessive bureaucratization [and] spy mania" only hinder this work. Thankfully, Moscow recently decided to give its Norwegian counterparts the map of radioactivity at Andreyeva. To further enhance cooperation, and make it possible to honor Moscow's commitment to begin safely removing nuclear fuel from the site by 2010, the Russian authorities need to engage in a full-scope study of the fuel, including methods for its safe transport and storage post-Andreyeva. It is in the interest of everyone in the Arctic region that the Soviet nuclear legacy be eliminated in the safest possible manner, without triggering either political or nuclear incidents.

Cristina Chuen is a senior research associate at the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.