The toxic legacy of the Cold War lives on in Russia’s Arctic, where the Soviet military dumped many tonnes of radioactive hardware at sea.
For more than a decade, Western governments have been helping Russia to remove nuclear fuel from decommissioned submarines docked in the Kola Peninsula – the region closest to Scandinavia.
But further east lies an intact nuclear submarine at the bottom of the Kara Sea, and its highly enriched uranium fuel is a potential time bomb.
This year the Russian authorities want to see if the K-27 sub can be safely raised, so that the uranium – sealed inside the reactors – can be removed.
They also plan to survey numerous other nuclear dumps in the Kara Sea, where Russia’s energy giant Rosneft and its US partner Exxon Mobil are now exploring for oil and gas.
Seismic tests have been done and drilling of exploratory wells is likely to begin next year, so Russia does not want any radiation hazard to overshadow that. Rosneft estimates the offshore fossil fuel reserves to be about 21.5bn tonnes.
In a statement to the BBC, Exxon Mobil said that before drilling offshore “it is standard industry practice to conduct extensive studies at and below the seabed” to check for hazards, using tools including remote sonar and a magnetometer.
It said Rosneft had also carried out a study focused on nuclear waste disposal in the Kara Sea.
The two companies “are confident that we can safely drill in the Kara Sea and avoid hazards from radioactive materials on the seabed”, Exxon Mobil said.
‘Strategic imperative’
The Kara Sea region is remote, sparsely populated and bitterly cold, frozen over for much of the year. The hostile climate would make cleaning up a big oil spill hugely challenging, environmentalists say.
Those fears were heightened recently by the Kulluk accident – a Shell oil rig that ran aground in Alaska.
But Charles Emmerson, an Arctic specialist at the Chatham House think tank, says Arctic drilling is a “strategic imperative” for Russia, which relies heavily on oil and gas exports.
It is a bigger priority for Russia than Alaskan energy is for the US, he says, because the US now has a plentiful supply of shale gas. That and environmental concerns make the Arctic more problematic for Americans, he told BBC News.
“In the US the Arctic gets great public scrutiny and it’s highly political, but in Russia there is less public pressure.”
Russia is rapidly developing the energy-rich Yamal Peninsula, on the eastern shore of the Kara Sea. The retreat of Arctic summer sea ice, believed to be evidence of global warming, means liquefied natural gas tankers will be able to reach the far east via Russia’s Northern Sea Route in future.