The concentration of nuclear installations and the accumulation of radioactive waste and nuclear fuel in Northwest Russia represent a potential risk of radioactive pollution in the region, including the Barents Sea area. Significant national and international actions have been undertaken to reduce the risks of radioactive contamination in this region, but still much remains to be done. Presently, priority areas are the removal of radioactive sources from radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), safe decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear submarines and rehabilitation of facilities used as temporary storage for radioactive material.
The removal and safe disposal of RTG and their replacements with solar panel technology in Northwest Russia is a priority area under the Norwegian action plan. RTGs have been used for powering various devices, such as lighthouses, in remote areas of the Arctic. The remaining 11 devices, located in the Archangelsk and Nenets regions were removed in 2009 (Action plan, 2009; AMAP, 2009;NRPA,2009).
The work on safe decommissioning of nuclear submarines is in progress. As of 2008 164 of the 198 obsolete nuclear submarines of the Russian Northern fleet had been defueled and dismantled. Of the remaining 34, 9 nuclear submarines in northwest are waiting to be decommissioned (Action plan, 2009; AMAP, 2009).
A major potential risk of radioactive pollution for the local and regional environment represent facilities used as temporary storage sites for radioactive wastes, spent fuel and reactors from decommissioned submarines such as temporary storage at Andreev Bay and Gremikha (on the Kola Peninsula), and Lepse storage vessel (in the Kola Bay). Transport of spent fuel and radioactive wastes form these facilities to safer storage sites represents another risk (see details in chapter Current and expected state of the ecosystem - Human activities/impact). The present plan suggests that transport of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from Andreev Bay can start in 2013-2014. From Gremikha the removal of fuel to the Russian reprocessing plant in Mayak was scheduled to start at the end of 2008 (NRPA, 2007d; Action plan, 2009; AMAP, 2009). Further activities will also include defueling and decommissioning of the Lepse Floating Maintenance Base, which has been used for storing spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste and which is in a very poor condition (AMAP, 2009). It is also expected to relocate the Lepse from the Atomflot site to the Nerpa Shipyard.
There are several other issues that present a potential risk of radioactive contamination in the region that could affect the Barents Sea area as well.
The safety of the ageing Kola NPP continues to be an important part of Norwegian-Russian collaboration which is anchored in a separate sub-strategy under the Norwegian Nuclear Action Plan revised in 2008 (see chapter Current and expected state of the ecosystem - Human activities/impact).
Russian plans for building Floating Nuclear Power Plants (FNPP) for use in the Arctic region, and their possible export, raise new concern on nuclear safety in the region (AMAP, 2009; NRPA, 2008c). The presence of new nuclear power generation facilities in the Arctic and related technologies may affect the risk of accidents and incidents involving a release of radioactive substances to the marine environment, as well as increase the risk posed to human health and the socio-economic situation in the region (NRPA, 2007a, 2008c; AMAP, 2009). Apart from risks associated with FNPPs themselves, there is further potential for pollution arising from supporting shore based facilities designed for the purpose of refuelling, waste handling, decommissioning and other activities (NRPA, 2008c). Besides, should FNPPs be built, it will increase not only the number of reactors in the Arctic, but also the nuclear traffic to and from the Arctic where the Barents Sea area might also be involved. Such traffic would consist of vessels loaded with fresh fuel and more significantly, spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste on the return journey.
In addition, the opening up of the Northeast Passage for increased ship traffic may also lead to the transport of nuclear materials from European reprocessing facilities through the Barents Region. Concern has also been raised about the possibility of a new transport route for spent nuclear fuel to the Russian north and along the Norwegian coastline as climate change reduces ice cover in the Arctic. In Norway, large economical and cultural interests are connected to production and export of marine food products, and past experiences have shown that only rumours of radioactive contamination in seafood can lead to economical consequences for producers.
Another potential risk is posed by the presence and operation of nuclear powered military and civilian vessels, such as nuclear icebreakers, in the region. Presently, Russia has 7 nuclear icebreakers in operation which have Murmansk as a port of registry and are in use in the Arctic region.
Recent assessments suggest that the oil and gas industry is likely to expand in the Arctic which will bring new concern on the risk of possible radioactive pollution of the marine environment. However, any potential radiological impact arising from the expansion of the oil and gas industry in the Arctic may be mitigated due to national and international policies regarding the ultimate fate of operational discharges and wastes that are likely to represent a source of TENORM to the marine environment.