Current geopolitical chatter has revealed an interesting trend: Russia is building up their military presence in the Arctic. The world’s largest country accounts for over fifty percent of coastline in the Arctic region alone and about half of the people living there—around two million.
In a way, it makes sense that Russia would take measures to secure the Arctic since it makes up so much of their borders. After all, no one faults the U.S. for having the Coast Guard patrol its Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, or the U.K. doing the same in the waters that surround them.
What makes the situation in the Arctic different, though, is perception. Russia sees the shipping route that goes through the Arctic just north of their border as an internal route. Many other countries, however, see it as an international passage.
So, imagine the worldwide alarm if it came to light Russia was constructing nuclear installations along this route. Well, that is exactly what the Soviet Union did.
Alright, “nuclear installations” is an vague description of the reality. The Soviet Union was actually building lighthouses; lighthouses powered by nuclear batteries. That sounds less ominous than “nuclear installation,” doesn’t it?
Let’s take a look at this piece of history frozen in time. Strap on your thinking caps—the warmer the better—and try not to radiate too much enthusiasm, because today we’re going to explore the Soviet Arctic Nuclear Lighthouses.
The Northeast Passage
Many students of North American history are probably familiar with the Northwest Passage. Ever since 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a westward route to East Asia and instead found the Bahamas, explorers have pursued this fabled water route.
Countless explorers drowned, froze, or disappeared while trying to chart the course from the Atlantic to the Pacific. One of the most notable examples is Henry Hudson. Namesake of the Hudson Bay, he was set adrift in said bay as a result of mutiny after his crew discovered the bay was not actually the beginning of a path through, but yet another icy trap.
It wasn’t until 1906 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen landed in Nome, Alaska, after spending the previous three years blazing a trail through the frigid route that is the modern-day Northwest Passage.
The sister route, the Northeast Passage, proved to be just as difficult to traverse. Exploration into this trade route began about the same time as exploration into the Northwest Passage. English sailors first started sailing through the frozen waters, followed soon by Dutch and other European explorers, to find a trade path to East Asia that was quicker and less geopolitically fraught than the land route.
Russian Tsars sponsored excursions carried out by Russian and other European explorers alike. It wasn’t until 1878-1879 that Baron Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld became the first person to make it all the way through.
When the Soviet Union started coming into its own, they made efforts to develop the Northeast Passage as a shipping route. It was used more during World War II as ships bearing goods and supplies from cities on the west coast of the U.S. sailed to ports in Northern Siberia.
After the war, Russian domestic shipping continued to grow, thanks to more advanced technology that led to better navigational tools and more effective icebreaker ships. The shipping season along the Northeast Passage lengthened from just the winter months to a good portion of the year; in some western sections, even year-round. Thanks, global warming.
The Northeast Passage was still a brutal terrain to cross. One section in particular remained locked in ice almost year-round. The stretch of the Northeast Passage from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait became known as the Northern Sea Route.
Efforts by the Soviet Union and, now Russia, have managed to establish and maintain a navigable path for ships, stretching 3,500 miles, or 5,600 kilometers. Part of this effort included building lighthouses. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union began building hundreds.
As is the case when dealing with any coastline in rough waters, captains needed to know where to sail in order to avoid beaching, I guess in this case, icing, their ships. These arctic lighthouses did just that.
However, lighthouses need maintenance and power. This usually comes in the form of a live-in lighthouse keeper and traditional fuel. But given the harsh conditions along the Northeast Passage, either no keepers volunteered for the task or the Soviet government did not want to subject anyone to that life. Without a keeper, there would be no one to replenish the light’s fuel source.
Soviet minds came together and gave this problem their collective thought (is there any other way to think in Soviet Russia?) In true Cold War fashion, they determined that going nuclear was the best solution. Apparently, there was actually a saying in the Soviet Union at the time: “Nuclear energy in every house!” Add “light” before the last word and, voila, arctic lighthouse problem solved.
On Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of Western Russia, north of Japan and south of the Bering Strait, lies the lighthouse called Aniva. It was built towards the end of the 1930s, when the Soviet Arctic lighthouse plan was just starting. For fifty years, people lived and worked in this lighthouse, maintaining the building and fueling the light. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Soviets placed a nuclear battery here.
The Lighthouse Aniva is the exception. If you look at a map, Sakhalin Island is located noticeably south of the rest of the Northeast Passage. Hundreds of other lighthouses the Soviets built are in desolate, frigid regions; islands and peninsulas that resemble little more than chunks of ice floating in the sea amongst more chunks of ice.
With the goal in mind of making these lighthouses autonomous, the Soviet government didn’t make a bad choice in using nuclear batteries. There just remains the issue of building maintenance and environmental impact to consider. But, let’s not split those atoms, or hairs, rather, until later.
The Nuclear Batteries
The batteries that powered these autonomous lighthouses were simple, in theory. They comprised only three parts: the radioisotope heat source, the thermoelectric battery that converts the thermal energy into electricity, and the case that houses the generator.
The technical name for these batteries is “radioisotope thermoelectric generator,” or RTG. The RTGs the Soviets used ran largely on Strontium-90. This isotope has a half-life of thirty years, so the lighthouses could remain lit for over a decade with no need for daily maintenance.
The Soviet Nuclear Lighthouse Project installed over one thousand of these RTGs in lighthouses all along the Northeast Passage up until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Using Strontium-90 and other radioisotopes to provide power may seem surprising to some, but, if the Cold War taught us anything, it’s that nuclear is the way to be.
In fact, radioisotope energy sources were quite common back in the Soviet Union. Remember that slogan? “Nuclear energy in every house!” Plus, this was before the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima, so the popularity of nuclear energy had no black marks to its name.
In fact, RTGs are still widely used today, but in a different barren, freezing environment: space. Space Agencies around the world have used RTGs to power many space vehicles, including the Cassini Probe sent to study Saturn and the rovers currently traversing the surface of Mars.
It has been decades since the Soviets used Strontium-90 RTGs in lighthouses. As what tends to happen with time ever since the industrial revolution, technology has advanced. The RTGs space agencies use now are called MMRTGs, short for Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators. There is also research being done now to improve these batteries and create EMMRTGs, with the “E” standing for “enhanced.” The way these nuclear batteries are progressing, we’ll have to get the cast of Sesame Street in the studio to walk us through the abbreviations soon.
All this is to say that these nuclear batteries the Soviets put into use in their arctic lighthouses started a trend. RTGs proved to be a reliable source of power for an extended period of time. But there is one crucial difference between using nuclear batteries in space and using them on earth: humans can more easily get to the latter.
The Lighthouses Now
The Soviet Nuclear Lighthouse Project ended when the Soviet Union fell. Construction and maintenance of these arctic structures stopped largely after 1991. But the lighthouses, not having any concept of regime change or calendar time, kept on shining. For a while, anyway.
After Russia emerged from Soviet rule, there was a period of economic hardship and turmoil. Looters pilfered the lighthouses and their nuclear batteries for scrap metal and parts. You’d have to imagine not too many common thieves would recognize an RTG when they saw one or know these lighthouses ran on nuclear power, or else they probably wouldn’t get anywhere near them. RTGs, unsurprisingly, emit radiation, especially when they are dismantled for spare parts.
More than several RTGs have gone missing—victims of quick hands or the wind and waves that punished these remote lighthouses. Ever since maintenance on these buildings stopped, the physical structure of the lighthouses has decayed. Batteries have burned out, windows and doors have been smashed in by wind and water, floors and walls have crumbled as age wore them down, even some locations have been lost with time.
In the early ‘90s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Bellona Foundation, an organization dedicated to environmental and climate solutions, reported on the location of 132 of these nuclear lighthouses. These known locations represent only a small part of the one-thousand plus total RTGs installed in the arctic.
Different groups have raised concerns over the safety and environmental impact these neglected nuclear batteries are leaving behind. Measurements taken in some sites have led experts to conclude that many of these RTGs are leaking radiation into the surrounding environment.
Though most of these lighthouses are along the Russian border on the Northeast Passage, some of them sit farther west, some just a kilometer away from the Norwegian border. Various groups have made efforts to collect these batteries and replace them with a safer alternative. Russian and Norwegian authorities have worked together to replace about hundreds of these RTGs with solar panels. The U.S. even sent tens of millions in aid to fund this effort.
The lack of accountability for all the RTGs also raises concerns over where they have ended up. If they fall into the wrong hands—say terrorists or extremist groups—these nuclear batteries could be fashioned into a dirty bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency, heeding reports credible enough to act on, searched the mountains in Northern Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, for RTGs they worried Chechen rebels had obtained.
U.S. Intelligence Agencies, ever on post-9/11 alert, perked their ears at this finding. Reports of their own put agents of al-Qaeda in hideouts in Georgia. Other reports from the CIA claim they found manuals describing the construction of radiological dispersal devices, or RDDs, in al-Qaeda caves in Afghanistan; devices easily enough made from salvaged RTGs. I can think of nothing else that would give any U.S. government official a heart attack faster than an al-Qaeda operative with a dirty bomb.
Just as cleanup and salvage of these remote nuclear batteries was progressing and leaders from around the world were meeting to discuss non-proliferation agreements, reports from 2016 claimed that Russia was looking to equip remote outposts in the Arctic with RTGs again. Unlike the former batteries powered by Strontium-90, Nickel-63 would power these new RTGs.
Nickel-63, another radioisotope, has a longer half-life of one-hundred years and is easier to contain since it emits no gamma radiation, making environmental contamination easier to prevent. In those regards, Nickel-63 batteries are safer. But there is still the concern of these potential dirty bombs falling into the wrong hands.
Nuclear safety experts have cited the remote locations as a factor decreasing the security of these RTGs. That they are used to power autonomous lighthouses and other outposts, by definition, means there is no one there to make sure they stay where they are supposed to. Perhaps the increased Russian military presence in the Arctic could provide some oversight.