Scientists from a Norwegian environmental group say they have obtained a leaked report by the Russian government’s highest nuclear authority warning of imminent risk of explosion in the enormous tanks holding discarded submarine fuel rods at its Andreeva Bay facility on the Arctic Ocean.

According to the Rosatom report, obtained by researchers at Bellona, an environmental group that has monitored the Russian site near the year-around ice-free naval port of Murmansk for evidence of leakage from radioactive wastes, three large cement tanks, built to house used fuel rods that began leaking in 1982, have begun to deteriorate due to cold and contact with seawater, creating conditions that could lead to an explosion.

Andreeva Bay, on the Kola peninsula of north-western Russia, is the nation’s primary spent-nuclear-fuel and radioactive-waste storage facility for its Northern Fleet. Currently, the facility holds 21,000 spent-nuclear-fuel assemblies and about 12,000 cubic meters of solid and liquid radioactive wastes.

Whereas uranium used in civilian nuclear plants is normally enriched to only three percent, Russian military uranium is often enriched to levels between 20 and 40 percent, the Scotsman newspaper reported, making the fuel rods at Andreeva Bay particularly toxic.

Unlike the U.S., the former Soviet Union made no plans for the eventual dismantling of its nuclear fleet and the safe management of radioactive wastes. Soviet military doctrine emphasized numbers, so relatively few older submarines were retired as newer ones entered service. The cost of clean up at the massive site has been estimated at $1.5 billion dollars, a number that prompted one Bellona physicist to tell Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper, “Russia will never do this.”

Fuel-storage tank at Andreeva Bay (Courtesy of the Bellona Foundation)

The present problem arises from cracks in the concrete structures, meant only to be a short-term solution when constructed in the 1980s, that have let seawater into the large containment vessels in which the fuel rods hang from the ceilings, contained in pipes. Cold, salt and condensation, as well as fuel-rod failure, have caused the radioactive assemblies to corrode and “hot” materials to slough off and fall to the bottoms of the metal pipes.

“The conclusion of Rosatom is that when the amount of particles on the bottom reaches five to 10 percent in relation to the amount of water, potentially explosive critical mass will occur,” said Igor Kudrik, one of the translators of the Russian agency’s report.

Open storage of spent nuclear fuel in casks at Andreeva Bay (Courtesy of the Bellona Foundation)

According to the Rosatom report, what will occur will be an “uncontrolled chain reaction” – the nuclear material will go critical. The chain reaction would generate enormous heat which could release hydrogen from the invading seawater, resulting in an explosion that could affect other fuel rods, breach the concrete chambers and release radioactive material into the air.

“In the best case a small, limited explosion in just one of the stored rods can lead to radioactive contamination in a [three-mile] radius. In the worst case, such a single explosion could cause the entire tank facility to explode. We have no calculations for what that could lead to,” Bellona’s Aleksandr Nikitin, a former Russian naval officer, told Aftenposten.

“It will at least, at a careful estimate, hit Northern Europe. There are enormous amounts of radioactivity stored in these tanks,” said Nils B?hmer, nuclear physicist and head of Bellona’s Russian division. “The radioactive fallout could be higher and affect northern Europe to a greater degree than the region hit by the Chernobyl disaster.”

John Large, an independent British nuclear consultant who has visited the Andreeva Bay facility several times, also warned of a Chernobyl-type event.

“This wouldn’t be a thermonuclear or atomic explosion as in a bomb, but the outcome is just as bad,” he told the Scotsman. “Remember Chernobyl? Well if you had the right weather conditions, the right wind pattern, this would mean a radioactive cloud drifting over Scotland and the rest of the UK.”

Despite the leaked report, a spokesman for Rosatom denied there was a threat to the public from the storage tanks. “The objects are being kept in such a way that there’s no danger of an explosion or an uncontrolled chain reaction,” he said.

The Norwegian Nuclear Protection Authority agreed a chain reaction at Andreeva Bay was possible but insisted the likelihood was “extremely small.”

But Large, who helped salvage radioactive material from the Russian submarine Kursk, which sank in the Barents sea in 2000, said the conditions at Andreeva Bay are typical of the way Russia has managed its nuclear wastes.

“This is what happens when a superpower decays – people in Britain talk about what to do with our nuclear waste, but what should concern us far more is the way the Russians are dealing with theirs,” he said.

In July 1993, almost 4 pounds of uranium, enriched to 36 percent, was stolen from Andreeva. The material was recovered one month later.

“We are sitting on a powder keg with a fuse that is burning, but we don’t know how long that fuse is,” said Nikitin.

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