See all the ICE Cases
Deploy the ICE Search and Sort Tool (SST)
Go To ICE Expert Site

ICE Case Studies
ICE Case Number 134, Russian Nuclear Dumping in Arctic Sea, Hilde Elin Haaland, Chad Cummins and Shehu Ibrahim

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

Dumping of highly radioactive wastes at sea has been banned worldwide for more than three decades, still it has been revealed that Russia (the former Soviet Union) has been dumping highly radioactive materials in the Arctic Sea (more precisely the Barents Kara Seas) since the late 1950s. This act has international implications, especially in view of Russia's relations to the Scandinavian countries (in particular Norway), as rich fishing grounds could be threatened. The Norwegian Prime Minister said the dumping represents a "security risk to people and to the natural biology of northern waters" , and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Johan Jorgen Holst stated that Russian pollution was "the biggest security problem Norway faces." Today scientists are trying to assess what possible damage the dumping might have done to the fragile environment of the Arctic region.

2. Description

The extent and the precise locations of Russia's nuclear polluting may forever remain a mystery. However, since the beginnings of Perestroika some of those secrets have begun to trickle out of the former Soviet Empire, much to the chagrin of her neighbors and the international community as a whole. The culprit in this mess, not to anyone's surprise, has been the Russian military.

While fact and fiction have been hard to differentiate (it depends on whose figures your consulting) these numbers have been confirmed. In the 1950's, the effluent from the nuclear-weapons factory near Chelyabinsk was dumped into the River Techa. It ended up in the Arctic Ocean. Between 1964 and 1986, some 7,000 tons of solid radioactive waste and 1,600 cubic meters of liquid waste was pitched into the Kara and Barents Seas from the base in Murmasnk which serviced the Soviet fleet of nuclear powered naval and merchant ships. Likewise, nuclear reactors from at least 18 nuclear submarines and icebreakers were dumped in the Barents sea, and an entire nuclear sub was deliberately sunk after an accident in May 1968. Another nuclear submarine, the Komsomolets, sank 300 miles of Norway with the loss of 42 sailors. It went down with two nuclear warheads. Finally, the Russians were dumping unprossed nuclear waste into The Sea of Japan. As late as October 1993, the Russians confirmed that one of their ships discharged 900 tons of radioactive water from scrapped nuclear submarines.

One of the best indicators to measure the degree of danger in the dumped material is its curie count. A curie is the measure of radioactivity associated with a decaying radioactive element. Elements in nuclear waste include caesium 137, cobalt 60, strontium and iodine, all of which produce types of radioactivity that are extreamly dangerous. To put all that into perspective, if one were to carry even one curie of those around in ones pocket, it would probably kill. The number of curies involved in the Sea of Japan dump sites is disputed. The Russians estimate it at no more than 46.2, although according to Greenpeace's scientists and other oceanographers this number is unrealistically low. However, compared to Soviet polluting in the Arctic sea it's mild. There, an estimated 312,500 curies were dumped between 1959-91.

The water depth is another important factor in determining the danger of nuclear dumping. According to experts, a depth of 3,000 meters is required to insure a high degree of safety. Otherwise, anything dumped in shallower waters could easily be taken up by living organisms quickly. Unfortunately, many of the confirmed Russian dumping sites are not at that depth.

The dangers of nuclear waste dumping come mostly from the threat that it poses to marine life. A poisoning of the Arctic Ocean and the Sea of Japan would have enormous economic, social and environmental costs not only to Russia, but Japan and the Scandinavian countries as well. Many of these countries depend on fish harvested from these regions to feed their own populace and to export. While Russia acknowledges that dumping nuclear waste into the ocean could be harmful Moscow has warned the international community that it has run out of places to store the waste on land and if financial aid is not forthcoming Russia will have no choice but to resume dumping it into the sea. This has stained Moscow's relationship with Japan, the Scandanavian countries, and others, who feel that it's not that Russia does not have the resources to devote to the problem but rather it's a matter of priorities. They want these priorities changed.

To date, no large scale poisonings have been reported although the possibility still exists. The first signs that there could be trouble on the horizon came in early 1993 when seals in the White Sea and Barents Sea were found to be dying from blood cancer. Autopsies conducted at the Northern Polar Institute in Archanagel suggested that pollution was the cause. This was worrying because seals are near the top of the food chain which could suggest that their might be allot of radioactive fish below them. However, thus far no fish poisonings have been reported. Nonetheless, the real possibility that humans are in danger of being poisoned through their ingestion of these same fish is all too real. If this were to happen, the consequences would be ominous.

Rumors about the secret illegal dumping had been flourishing for a while when a member of the old Soviet Parliament, in the fall of 1992, reported on the dumping practices. The result of Mr. Zolotkovs inquiries, himself a radiation engineer with the state company that operates the icebreaker fleet from Murmansk, was that Yeltsin ordered his top environmental adviser to produce a report on the matter. This report was released in March of 1993, and tells a disturbing tale of disregard for the environment and international treaties.

The Yablokov report states that the Soviet Union dumped an estimated 2.5 million curies of radioactive wastes in the Arctic Sea , including 16 nuclear reactors (a Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, has identified 21 nuclear reactors, nine still containing their fuel rods ) dumped in the shallow waters of the Barents and Kara Seas, and the reactor from the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin (sunk 1967) . About seven of the reactors still contained spent fuel, as it was impossible to remove them due to accidents etc. Waste water from naval and civilian reactors was also dumped by special ships, which diluted radioactive liquid with seawater. In addition, thousands of containers (estimated at 11,090 containers by Bellona ) of solid wastes from the Northern Fleet and icebreakers were dumped. (Mr. Zolotkov has estimated the it at almost 7,000 tons of solid wastes, and 1,600 cubic meters of liquid wastes.) In fact, seamen would cut holes in the sealed containers if they would not sink. It is believed, according to the Yablokov report, that Russian nuclear submarines are continuing to dump liquid radioactive wastes at sea for lack of on-shore storage and reprocessing facilities.

Further, there is also the case of the sunken submarine, the Komsomolets, which caught fire and sank near the edge of the Barents Sea in April 1989. An enormous crack in the subs bow, which left the torpedoes exposed, has been discover, and it is predicted that plutonium could begin to leak from the subs reactor and warheads by 1995 . In addition, the environmental group Bellona, has stated that at least five barges holding large quantities of nuclear wastes are floating or have sunk off the island of Novaya Zemlya .

Now that it has been proven beyond a doubt that dumping of nuclear wastes occurred in the Arctic Sea, the next step is to assess the possible effect it might have had on the environment. This is no easy task and scientists in both Russia and the Scandinavian countries have yet to reach a final conclusion. Thus the following statements are mere suggestions and speculation.

As mentioned above, it is estimated that the Soviet Union dumped 2.5 million curies of radioactive waste. This is about twice the amount the IAEA estimated a dozen other nuclear nations dumped from 1946 to 1982 . A curie is the amount of radiation given off by one gram of radium and, in any nuclear material, is equal to the disintegration of 37 billion per second. In theory, the oceans should be able to dilute such material, making radioactive wastes almost harmless. However, localized releases of high concentration can do damage when picked up by marine life. It is believed that the wastes dumped in the Arctic Sea is similar to the long-lived isotopes from the Chernobyl accident in 1986 (which released an estimated 50 million curies, mostly short-lived isotopes). Today, the radioactivity of dumped Russian wastes is little less than a million curies . In fact, for years Norway has only registered small amounts of radioactivity in the Barents Sea, and has attributed this to the fallout from Soviet nuclear tests and Chernobyl. "Those nuclear tests served as a sort of cover for these dumping operations," a Russian expert said .

The threat to marine life, however, is unclear since no records are yet available on the exact composition of the radioactive refuse and no one knows for sure if containment vessels are intact or leaking. It seems likely that the damage done has been minimum. For one, the Kara Sea, where most of the reactors were dumped, is frozen nine months out of the year and is said to have little biological activities. The fishing grounds of the Barents, White and Norwegian Seas lie hundreds of miles away. This limits, if not eliminates, risks to physical or biological migration of the radioactive wastes. Norwegian scientists have not detected any significant contamination of the fish in the area. However, waters near the dumping sites have not been tested, and waste containers could spring a leak, possibly presenting a environmental threat in the future.

On the other hand, there have been some disturbing incidents in recent years. In 1990, six million starfish, shellfish, seals, and porpoises washed up dead on the shores of the White Sea, and the areas natural fish population--flatfish, smelt, and cod-- migrated away. In 1992, seals in the White and Barents Sea were dying of blood cancer, suggesting that they had been exposed to radioactivity and other toxic substances. Yuri Moshenko at the Northern Polar Institute in Arkangelsk maintains that the nuclear testing at Novaya Zemlya during the 1950s and the nuclear wastes dumping in the Arctic Sea are responsible.

Last but not least it is worth considering the impact, if any, which the dumping has had on the international as well as local economies. If the marine food chain has been contaminated, this could pose severe problems for the local fishing industry, and tourism. "If the rumors get around that Norwegian and Russian fish are contaminated with radioactivity, we arent going to sell many fish," said the former Norwegian Defense Minister, Johan Jorgen Holst. Regardless of whether the wastes represents a hazard, the issue could exact a serious economic toll if the public misunderstands the danger. As an example, Norway banned Russian icebreakers from entering Norwegian ports to take aboard tourists for $20,000 excursions to the North Pole. Russian experts have estimated that if plutonium leaks from the Komsomolets, it could contaminate fish with twice the allowed limits of radioactivity, causing millions of dollars in damage. This estimate has been disputed by Norwegian experts, who say that the sub contains only a very small amount of plutonium and is far from the fishing grounds. Further, the sub lies at a significant depth, while the fish live in the upper layers of the ocean.

Perhaps the biggest concern and financial question to people in Norway and Russia, as well as the rest of the world, is what to do with the rest of the Russian submarine fleet. So far, Russia has saved an undisclosed amount of money by dumping the waste instead of having to build and operate expensive storage and recycle facilities. The Northern Fleet operates more than 200 nuclear propulsion reactors in its ballistic missile and attack submarines. 60 old decommissioned nuclear subs are standing idle in Russian harbors, and 14 must be scrapped by 1998 (at the cost of about 100 million rubles -- $1 million in May 1992) in accordance with the START II nuclear disarmament treaty. Further, the Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, has obtained information that suggests (as of July 1993) that the cost of outfitting and updating the shipyards in Severodvinsk, near Arkangelsk, (so as to be able to handle the decommissioning of the Russian nuclear submarine fleet) could reach at least 23 billion rubles. Russia seeks to cut the size of its fleet by a third by 1995, and have approached Norway (the Fridjof Nansen Institute) for expertise and money to decommission about 50 subs from 1992 to the end of the decade. Proposals have been put forward, suggesting the building of a permanent radioactive waste repository on Novaya Zemlya using one or more of the shafts built for underground nuclear explosions. This plan has been supported by the Murmansk shipping line and the Northern Fleet, but the local authorities reject any plan where the military will be in charge of running the facilities. In addition, the cost of lifting the Komsomolets, as has been suggested as an option, has been estimated at $250-500 million. Thus, an alternative solution has been suggested, to smother the wreck with a gel of chitin and chitosan, which absorb heavy metals such as plutonium.

Some related issues should be briefly mentioned as they may be of consequence in the future. Facilities inside Russia that have far greater quantities of nuclear wastes stored in insecure reservoirs and a lake could leak into rivers flowing into the Arctic Sea. In fact, a subsurface plume of pollution (discharged from the Mayak facilities) from Lake Karachai is seeping toward the nearby Misheliak River at a rate of 80 meters per year and will soon reach the river. This represents nearly 50 times the radioactivity of the wastes dumped in the ocean. In addition the Mayak facilities (the Mayak facilities are located 60 kilometer north of the town of Tshelabinsk in South Ural, and during the Soviet era, was the largest production site for weapongrade plutonium in the Soviet Union) has 200,000 ci stored in a system of reservoirs that are in danger of overflowing. The problem is that the water from this region ultimately drains into the Ob River, which flows north into the Arctic Sea. In addition, Bellona reports that 1 billion ci of radioactive waste, 26,000 kilos of plutonium, and 44,000 used fuel assemblies are stored at Mayak as of August 1992.

Finally, it should be mentioned that even though these problems do not pose an immediate threat to North America, the U.S. Congress appropriated $10 million to the Defense Department to organize a program for rapidly assessing the threat from the dumped Soviet wastes.

3. Duration


4. Location

The affected area is primarily the Arctic Sea, which includes the Barents, White and Kara Seas. Most of the reactors were dumped on the eastern side of the Russian island Novaya Zemlya, while some were dumped on the western side.

Continent: Arctic
Region: Eastern Arctic
Country: Russia

5. Actors

Russia and Norway

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem


The waste includes nuclear reactors with or without fuel rods, and solid and liquid waste, as well as other low-level waste. The implication of such dumping is explained in curies. According to Zyla, "elements in nuclear waste include caesium 137, cobalt 60, strotium and iodine - all of which produce types of radioactivity extremely dangerous to life forms" (21). The above issue is significant because it touches on international and domestic trade (people trading in fishes and micro-organism ), and its attendant negative externality on the environment, which destroys the productive capacity of the people. This is applicable where dumping is done around shallow waters, and sea shores, which would have severe impact on the immediate environment.

The Soviet Union Navy and other atomic fleet depends on the use of nuclear powered system. This issue has become compounded due to Soviet's inability to provide storage, hence, resulted in the dumping of the nuclear waste at sea. According to Andre Baiduzhy, "Dumping began in 1959, with nuclear submarines (as) major culprits; can't stop dumping until reprocessing is in place (not before 1997); 235 nuclear ships (407 reactors) produce more radioactive waste than storage sites can take" (21). The effect of nuclear dumping becomes apparent when Viktor Litovkin, Izvesta staff, states that, "Every year, in the process of operating nuclear-powered submarines and other vessels with nuclear propulsion plants, up to 20,000 cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste and up to 6,000 tons of solid waste is produced" (18).

Although, the USSR denies any wrong doing about the nuclear dumping, which has been made secretive due to the nature of its system. Baiduzhy cites a Soviet expert's response to a question during the London conference about Soviet's dumping," the USSR has not dumped, is not dumping and does not plan to dump any radioactive wastes into the sea" (21). However, Litovkin cites Vice-Admiral Viktor Topilin, director of the Navy's Chief Administration for Operation and Maintenance, who underscores the truth about USSR involvement, "Under the law on protection of the environment, we are forbidden to bury liquid and solid radioactive waste at sea, as we did up until 1992. Our storage facilities- two in the North and two in the Far East - are almost 100% filled and there's no place to put spent fuel" (18). The USSR runs a centrally command system (lack of openness), which makes information very difficult to come by.

According to Denise Chai, one of the dangers is that, "uranium in nuclear fuel has a half-life of 24,000 years" (48). Even the Greenpeace supports Chai's view that the radioactive effect continues even after several years. Denise further states that "But the 3000 tons of liquid waste, with about 925 trillion becquerals (tBq) of radioactivity, which were dumped in the Sea of Japan in 1991 alone, are believed to have resulted in levels of radioactivity several times higher than permissible Japanese standards" (49). The impact could be devastating on the income of fishermen and the coutry's sectoral revenue. Chug Name-Kwan, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Science and Environment Division as cited by Denise, "Chug cannot hazard a guess as to the impact of the waste on Korea's fishing industries, since the 12 dumping sites are perhaps 'as large as the entire Korean peninsular'" (49). In addition, such dumping would have impact on other marine animals and other organisms in the sea.

7. Type of Habitat


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Russia and Many

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict


10. Level of Conflict


11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)


IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

13. Level of Strategic Interest


14. Outcome of Dispute:


V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Agafanov, Sergei. "Far East" Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press. June 9, 1993, V45n19, p16.

Anderson, Ian. "License Row Hangs over Soviet Waste" New Scientists. Dec 23, 1989, V124, n1696-1696, p.4.

Baiduzhy, Andre. "Is Russia still Dumping Nuclear Waste at Sea?" Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press. May 5, 1993, V45n14, .p 21-22.

Broad, William J.; "Russians Describe Extensive Dumping of Nuclear Waste", The New York Times, April 27, 1993.

Chai, Denise. "Cold War's Legacy" Business Korea. June 1993, V10,n12, p 48-50.

Chazan, Guy, "Ecologist warns of danger from sunken sub", United Press International, April 6, 1993.

"Chronology of Developments Concerning the Dumping of Radioactive Wastes at Sea by the USSR/Russian Navy and Merchant Marine and the Loss of Nuclear-Powered Vessels ar Sea, 1975-1993", Greenpeace, March 3, 1993.

"Cruise report Norwegian/Russian Expedition to the Kara Sea, August-September 1992".

Dahlburg, John-Thor, The Soviet's Deadly Nuclear Legacy, "Reader's Digest" v.142 (March 1993), p.139-44.

"Economist", Pollution in Russia: Nuclear Winter, v.326, (Feb. 13, 1993 p.84-85.

Edwards, Mike, "After the Soviet Union's Collapse: A Broken Empire", National Geographic v.183. (March 1993) p.2-53.

Environment Today, "U.S. Navy will help Russia Combat Nuclear Waste in Arctic', v.4 (April, 1993) p.50.

"Greenpeace Position Regarding Dumped Reactors", Greenpeace, Moscow, March 1993.

Johnston, Paul and Ruth Stringer. "Radioactive Waste Dumping in the Kara Sea: A Critique of the Joint Russian/Norwegian Survey Programme", University of Exeter, October, 1992.

Land, Thomas. "Nuclear Wastes Seek Home" Nature. Feb 13, 1992, V355 n6361, p580.

Litovkin, Viktor. "More Environmental Disasters predicted for Russia" Current Digest of Post-Soviet Press. August 4, 1993, V45n27, p18-19.

MacKenzie, Debora, "Russia Owns up to Sea Burial for Nuclear Waste", New Scientist v.138 (Apri 17, 1993), p.5.

MacKenzie, Debora, "Whole Reactors Lurk Under Barents Sea", New Scientist v.137 (Feb. 13, 1993) p.9

Mallory, Maria, "Dropping a Bomb on Radioactive Junkyards", Business Week, (July 3, 1989) p.29-30

Marshall, Eliot, "A Scramble for Data on Arctic Radioactive Dumping", Science v.257 (July 31, 1992) p.608-9.

Millot, Lorraine, "A Cruise in the Atomic Sea", World Press Review, v.40 (March 1993) p.20.

Monastersky, R. "Hazard from Soviet nuclear dump assessed", Science News, May 15, 1993

Nilsen, Thomas and Nils Bohmer; Sources to radioactive contamination in Murmansk and Arkangel'sk counties, The Bellona Foundation, Oslo, 1994.

"Norway Escapes Nuclear Leak", Power Europe, March 26, 1992.

"Norway Fails to Substantiate Claim of Soviet Dumping of Radioactive Wastes", BNA International Environment Daily, February 4, 1991.

Pasternak, Douglas. "Moscow's Dirty Nuclear Secrets" US News and World Report. Feb 10,1992, V112n5, p.46-47.

Perera, Judith; "Russia: Nuclear Systems to Be Monitored by Norway", Inter Press Service, August 3, 1992.

"Radioactive Risk to Norwegian Waters", Power Europe, September 26, 1991.

"Russia says Soviets dumped Nuclear waste" News For You. Jul 7, 1993, V41n26, p.2.

Sagers, Matthew J., "Nuclear Waste Illegally Dumped at Sea off Novaya Zemlya", Soviet Geography v.32 (Dec. 1991) p.706-7.

Sakurai, Kiyoshi, From Russia with Love: Oceans Around Japan Full of Nuclear Waste, Tokyo Business Today v.62 (April 1994) p.36-8.

Sanger, David E., Nuclear Material Dumped off Japan, New York Times (Oct. 19, 1993) p.A1+

Schoenfeld, Gabriel, "Rad Strom Rising", Atlantic v.266 (Dec. 1990) p.44-5.

"Scientists Begin Month-long Expedition to Investigate Sunken Nuclear Submarine", BNA International Environment Daily, August 17, 1993.

Swinbanks, David, Japan to Study Damage from Russian Dumping, "Nature" v.365 (Oct. 26, 1993) p.777.

Tarasov, Aleksei. "Commonwealth relations" Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press. February 12, 1992, V44n2, p.21.

"The Ocean-dumping debate" US News and World Report. May 10, 1993, V114 n18, p.9.

Tyler, Patrick E. "Soviet's Secret Nuclear Dumping Causes Worry for Arctic Waters", The New York Times, May 4, 1992.

Walters, Robert, Poison in the Pacific, "Progressive" v.56 (July 1992) p.32-5.

Watson, Traci, Soviets Reported to have Dumped Nuclear Waste in Arctic, "Nature" v.358. (Aug. 6, 1992) p.444.

Whitney, Craig R., Russia Halts Nuclear Waste Dumping in Sea, "New York Times" (Oct. 22, 1993) p.A9.

Zolotkov, Andrei, "On the Dumping of Radioactive Waste at Sea Near Novaya Zemlya", Greenpeace Nuclear Free Seas Campaign/Russian Information Agency Seminar: "Violent Peace -- Deadly Legacy", Moscow, September 23 and 24, 1991.

Zylam, Melana, Deep Trouble: Russian Nuclear Waste Dumped in Sea of Japan, "Far Eastern Economic Review" v.156 (March 18, 1993) p.21.