One of the major problems in the Arctic is nuclear waste from submarines, ice breakers and other nuclear powered vessels and stations. These legacies of the past Cold War era are still looming. Storage and treatment are cost-intensive and technically difficult. However, in Saida Bay near Murmansk, a brand-new radioactive waste treatment and storage plant is a brilliant example and symbol of what is possible if east and west invest into cooperation instead of arms race. Now, Murmansk governor Marina Kovtun has invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to visit the complex.

In Saida Bay, radioactive compartments from submarines originally used during the Cold War, are now stored side by side and wait to be processed. Many of these submarines had once roamed the Arctic Ocean. Picture Thomas Nilsen
In Saida Bay, radioactive compartments from submarines originally used during the Cold War, are now stored side by side and wait to be processed. Many of these submarines had once roamed the Arctic Ocean. Picture Thomas Nilsen

During a visit in the capital Moscow, Murmansk Governor Marina Kovtun cordially invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to visit the latest storage and treatment complex for radioactive waste in the Arctic, Saida Bay. “This is a huge complex, which is able to accept the deposit of 155 reactor compartments from nuclear submarines. This project is unique in the world today with regards to technology and safety. On this occasion, Vladimir Vladimirovich, I would like to invite you to visit this unique object. I think it is worth it, because it really is the work of a unique team”, she said according to reports from the Kremlin. Saida Bay radioactive waste treatment plant opened last November. The complex is by far the largest and most expensive treatment plant for radioactive material leftover from the Cold War in the Russian Arctic. Dedicated workshops for processing, conditioning and long-term storage will handle waste from both Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions. The majority of the radioactive waste dates back to Soviet times with the decommissioned fleet of Cold War nuclear powered submarines.

The loss of the Russian submarine “Kursk” in 2000 was one of the largest incidents involving nuclear powered submarines costing 118 lives. A memorial is now set in Murmansk while its reactor compartment was brought to Saida Bay. Picture: Michael Wenger
The loss of the Russian submarine “Kursk” in 2000 was one of the largest incidents involving nuclear powered submarines costing 118 lives. A memorial is now set in Murmansk while its reactor compartment was brought to Saida Bay. Picture: Michael Wenger

The complex was financed with international help, mainly Germany, as part of the G8 Global Initiative to secure radioactive material. In total, Germany has paid over €600 million into Saida Bay over the last 12 years. In addition to the treatment plants, a huge outdoor concrete pad can hold up to 155 reactor compartments. This is the reactors from submarines that are cut into metal pieces for recycling, but where the contaminated sections still have to be stored for hundreds of years awaiting the radioactive decay period to make the contaminated metal less harmful. The plant consists of a module area for receiving waste where the different types of low-, medium- and transuranium waste will be sorted. Secondly, there is a workshop for processing the waste in order to reduce the volume before it enters the module for packing into new containers suitable for long term storage. Several thousand cubic metres of solid radioactive waste are today awaiting safe processing.

The Saida Bay complex is the largest nuclear waste storage and treatment complex in the Russian Arctic. It can hold up to 155 compartments and reactors and hopes are up that it will not only hold Russian nuclear waste but will be internationally used. Picture: Thomas Nilsen
The Saida Bay complex is the largest nuclear waste storage and treatment complex in the Russian Arctic. It can hold up to 155 compartments and reactors and hopes are up that it will not only hold Russian nuclear waste but will be internationally used. Picture: Thomas Nilsen

“It solves the problem of long-term storage of nuclear waste not only in Northwest Russia, but for the whole Arctic,” Kovtun said to the President. Today, around 80 reactor compartments are stored in Saida Bay, and more are being prepared. In addition to submarine reactors, the Saida Bay pad will hold compartments from retired civilian nuclear powered icebreakers soon to be decommissioned and cut up for scrap. Also, solid radioactive waste from Andreeva Bay and Severodvinsk will be treated and stored at the plant.  Russia has not taken any decision on where a final repository for radioactive waste will be established. A year ago, county officials in Arkhangelsk Oblast decided to go ahead with the plans to create such repository on Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic.  The project still awaits a final decision to be taken on the Federal level, maybe later this year as previously reported by the media.

Due to lack of funds, many of the decommissioned submarines were simply sunk along the Russian northern coast and thus pose a considerable environmental danger. Scuttling and storing the reactors in Saida Bay offers a new perspective for future handling. Picture: Nerpa Shipyard
Due to lack of funds, many of the decommissioned submarines were simply sunk along the Russian northern coast and thus pose a considerable environmental danger. Scuttling and storing the reactors in Saida Bay offers a new perspective for future handling. Picture: Nerpa Shipyard

Source: Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer