One of the tasks was to study the condition of the potentially dangerous underwater facilities at the bottom of the Kara Sea. In the Soviet times, up to 1991, Russia dumped containers with radioactive waste and as many as 13 nuclear reactors removed from submarines.
A total of 138 nuclear explosions (in the air, on the ground, underground and underwater) were conducted in Novaya Zemlya in the times of military confrontation. The Kara Sea was turned into a radioactive waste cemetery. Needless to say, they were covered with special conservation mixtures, but everything has its sell by date. Dump sites were replenished with the development of atomic icebreakers. For examples, three nuclear reactors of the famous icebreaker Lenin were buried in the western part of the Kara Sea.
A considerable part of radioactive dump sites have been put on the map and it is possible to monitor their condition. But the location of some is unknown - at that time there were no JPS systems. The situation in the Kara Sea is potentially dangerous for adjacent countries. Norway has grounds to be constantly worried about these dumps sites. But they pose the greatest danger to Russia. Currents in the eastern Arctic mostly flow from the west to the east, and any pollution spreads along the Russian coastline. But nothing is safe in the water, and other countries may also face the consequences of depreservation of radioactive waste on the Russian shelf.
Using the maps of the defense and emergency ministries, we studied the condition of radioactive dump sites by the north tip of Novaya's Zemlya Northern Island. Earlier expeditions by the Ministry of Emergency Situations have shown that dump sites to the south are not dangerous, whereas northern sites - in the Gulf of Currents and the Gulf of Prosperity - have not been studied enough. The weather was good, and we explored these small gulfs during ten days. The bottom was video-taped in detail by robots. We studied sediments with hydro location equipment, monitored radioactive contamination, and took samples to establish radioactive levels. We did not reveal any excessive radioactivity.
We found what we expected. Since waste was dumped long ago, it was covered by a layer of sediments. But sensitive methods of hydro location and detailed video observation helped us to detect all solid objects under this layer. We took samples of the layer, and found that there were only minor excesses of radioactivity at the Kara Sea bottom. This means that dump sites are secure.
Sediments also play the role of an isolator but they may be disturbed by ice exaration, when the seabed is plowed by the lower part of icebergs or ice fields that have turned upside down. As a result, dump sites may be everted. But this has not happened so far.
But there are still problems. The main task is to thoroughly study all potential dump sites in the Kara Sea. We must localize all objects, determine their condition, and establish how dangerous they are for the environment. The study of chemical weapons' dumping sites in the Baltic shows that some of them can last for another 50 years, whereas others have started falling apart.
The changing climate points to one more aspect of the problem. Nuclear dumping sites may be destroyed not only by nature, but also by anthropogenic activity. Under the effect of global warming, ice on the Kara Sea may melt, and people will rush to develop giant hydrocarbon deposits, which have already been explored (the reserves of the Leningrad and Rusanov deposits on the Kara shelf are estimated to have more than 3.5 trillion cubic meters of gas and gas condensate). The work may come close to dump sites, and it is important to establish precisely to which areas there must be no access.
Mikhail Flint is deputy director of the Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
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