Are retired nuclear submarine reactors dangerous?

Ticking time bomb Soviet nuclear submarines are rotting in the oceans

The USSR owned well over 200 nuclear submarines. When the giant socialist empire dissolved, the country's once "glorious" fleet gradually began to rot. Reactors and fuel rods from nuclear submarines were only sparsely secured and then forgotten.

The largest hunting submarine ever

As early as April 1989, still in the days of the USSR, the nuclear powered submarine "Komsomolez" sank in the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean. On board: two reactors, uranium and plutonium. The submarine is still resting on the bottom of the Barents Sea. Nobody knows what it looks like inside the boat.

A ticking time bomb

14 years later the "Komsomolets" got company. In August 2003, a K-159 series nuclear submarine sank in bad weather in the Barents Sea. The submarine K-159, which belonged to the first generation of nuclear powered submarines in the USSR and was produced from 1963, was equipped with two reactors and was to be towed for scrapping. Ten soldiers were killed in the disaster. The nuclear submarine could not be recovered and is still lying at the bottom of the ocean to this day. Russian authorities assure that the submarine does not pose any threat. Experts deny that. They speak of a ticking time bomb.

Interim storage facility for 50 submarines

In Saida Bay in the Arctic Ocean north of Murmansk, more than 50 disused nuclear submarines of the Soviet Navy have been lounging around in a so-called long-term storage facility since the end of the USSR. They were only poorly secured and otherwise largely forgotten. In 2003 the German Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry signed an agreement. Germany assured Russia that it would help with the disposal of the decommissioned Northern Fleet. First a huge hall was built - a kind of interim storage facility in which the reactors of the submarines are supposed to "decay".

Why submarines need to be inflated

Widjajevo, on the Kola Peninsula, is a naval base for the Russian Northern Fleet and another cemetery for disused Soviet nuclear submarines. Thousands of tons of nuclear scrap and waste are stored in the open air or have been dumped in the sea. Dozens of disused nuclear submarines bob around the quay walls. To keep them from sinking, they are constantly inflated with air. Some of the reactors have been removed from the submarines and are stored in halls on the site.

And not far from Vvyayevo, in an isolated military port in the once secret city of Saozjorsk, two decommissioned nuclear submarines of the so-called "Alpha class" (taken into service between 1968 and 1972) lie in the ice. They are rusting to themselves.

Almost disaster due to unpaid electricity bill

In 1995, the Kola Peninsula almost suffered a catastrophe. The reactors on a nuclear submarine threatened to overheat. The city's electricity works had turned off the electricity for the military because they hadn't paid their bills. The reactors could no longer be cooled. A disaster could be averted at the last second. The submarines, of course, continued to rot.

A disturbing report

But thousands of tons of other nuclear waste were simply dumped in the ocean. In 2013, the Russian government published a report listing the amount of nuclear waste dumped in the Russian regions of the Arctic and Pacific Oceans: 19 ships with radioactive cargo and around 20,000 containers with nuclear waste. The last dump is said to have taken place in 1993.