After initially rejecting nuclear-powered submarines, the municipal council in Tromsø, Norway's largest city above the Polar Circle, has made a startling U-turn despite popular protests.
The decision was made by an overwhelming majority of 32 to 11 votes, national broadcaster NRK reported. The municipal council voiced concern about fulfilling Norway's obligations as a member of NATO, and pledged to facilitate the allied presence in the High North in general and the municipality in particular.
This marks the end of years of negotiations between Norway and the US. The two countries have been working to enable US submarines to dock at Tønsnes in Tromsø. The US would like a port in northern Norway to change crews, fill up with equipment, and perform maintenance. This is due to the fact that US submarines are now sailing more than before in the North Atlantic, alongside Norway's coast and in the Arctic.
Tromsø had such a facility in the form of the NATO base Olavsvern, but it was closed down in 2009 and sold to private investors. This leaves the municipal harbour of Tønsnes as the only option. The municipal council of Tromsø initially had plans to develop the port for civil and commercial purposes. In a municipal board meeting in March 2019, port calls by US nuclear-powered vessels at Tønsnes were rejected, only to be accepted later on. As the Transport Ministry pointed out, since the harbour at Tønsnes is a municipal one, it falls under the reception obligation and has a duty to accept all types of warships.
Protesters gathered outside of the Tromsø town hall, but to no avail.
“We don't want submarines here, full of things we have no idea about. In the worst case, it could lead to us getting a Chernobyl of our own,” local woman Guri Helene Hansen told NRK, recalling the 1986 disaster at the Ukrainian power plant. “I think it is a mockery and betrayal of the population. It is an awful, big defeat for all of northern Norway,” she said, voicing her concern over possible accidents.
These fears were earlier shared by Greenpeace Norway.
“Allowing nuclear-powered submarines in Norwegian ports and waters is like playing Russian roulette with people and nature. Or more appropriate in this case: NATO roulette. This is about the government and parliament not standing up against the US,” the leader of Greenpeace Norway, Frode Pleym, said earlier this year.
At over 76,000 inhabitants, Tromsø is the largest urban area in Northern Norway and the third largest north of the Arctic Circle anywhere in the world, trailing only Murmansk and Norilsk, both in Russia.