The Kara Sea, a body of Arctic water so remote that the Soviet Union used it as an atomic-waste dump for more than 25 years, has become the focus of an environmental battle that oil companies are aiming to win.
Exxon Mobil and its Russian partner Rosneft are taking steps to drill near the ocean-floor wasteland, eager to plumb an Arctic region estimated to hold enough crude to supply the world for five years. They've sidestepped environmental groups' calls for a clean-up prior to exploration of the area off Russia's northern coast, where Soviet ships dumped worn-out reactors and 17,000 containers of radioactive waste.
Scientists in Norway Tuesday presented the first survey of atomic pollution in the region for 18 years. Levels of gamma radiation haven't increased and are "generally low," said Hilde Elise Heldal, the Norwegian leader of the expedition. The lack of visible leaks may rob some ecologists of a weapon to stop drilling that oil companies say can be done safely.
"All ecological and nature protection norms are being followed at the same time," Rustam Kazharov, a spokesman at Rosneft, said by email.
The Moscow-based company is preparing for exploration based on Russian law and "the best world practices available." Exxon and Rosneft this month agreed to start designing a platform to drill in the Kara Sea's shallow waters. The first well could be started as soon as 2014.
The Kara Sea's toxic history highlights the risks to the Arctic, one of the world's most remote regions and still a magnet for environmental activism. Politicians including a group of British legislators and ecologists have urged a ban on oil and gas exploration to protect the region from the risk of spills.
Greenpeace has campaigned against Arctic drilling by Royal Dutch Shell in Alaska, Cairn Energy in Greenland and Gazprom in Russia.
The activist group will oppose drilling in the Kara Sea regardless of the published findings, said Dima Litvinov, a Greenpeace campaigner on Russian issues.
"This waste must be retrieved and stored as safely as possible on land if we are to avoid a catastrophe," Litvinov said. "Russians, or anyone else, shouldn't be drilling for hydrocarbons in the Arctic."
The single most dangerous item at the bottom of the sea is the K-27 nuclear submarine, scuttled by the Soviet navy in 1981.
While there's no sign of increased radiation from the ship, corrosion may damage the ship's reactor and potentially cause an environmental emergency, according to the state-run Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, or NRPA.
"There might be a hypothetical possibility that the spent nuclear fuel in the reactor in extreme situations can cause an uncontrolled chain reaction, which can lead to heat and radioactivity releases," said Per Strand, a director at the agency, which backed the international scientific expedition.
Authorities in Russia and Norway need to make the safe disposal of K-27 their top priority, Strand said in an interview. The sea lies about 600 miles to the east of Norway.
International scientists, who last measured pollution in the Kara Sea in 1994, will need to continue to carry out sample tests, Igor Shumakov, a deputy head of the Russian hydrometeorology watchdog, said Tuesday at a press conference in Kirkenes, Norway.
"The Russian government is drafting a plan to clean up the Arctic seas," Shumakov said.
The joint Norwegian-Russian expedition took water, biological and bottom sediment samples in the Stepovogo Fjord, where the K-27 submarine was sunk, Heldal said.
The scientists sent remote-controlled submersible vehicles with cameras and didn't detect any corrosion damage to the outer hull, she said. A survey of selected containers with radioactive waste also showed that they are "intact," she said.
Rosneft, Exxon's partner and Russia's state oil company, last month began surveying the East Prinovozemelsky 1 and 2 license blocks. Block 1 is adjacent to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where the Soviet regime dumped reactors and waste, according to research published in 1993 by Russian scientist Alexei Yablokov.
Until 1992, the Soviet Union dumped solid and liquid waste in the neighboring Kara and Barents seas, including atomic fuel from the icebreaker Lenin, the world's first nuclear-powered civilian vessel, according to an NRPA report.
There's still a lack of comprehensive data about the dumping because of Soviet secrecy and poor accountability, said Igor Kudrik, an ecologist from Norwegian campaign group Bellona.