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Soviets performed nuclear blasts at Siberian oilfield to be shared with China

Source: Reuters - Fri, 25 Oct 2013 10:22 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* At least seven blasts in 1970s and 1980s - regional ministry

* Moscow says field is safe, environmentalists see risks

* No radiation leaks reported at field

* Russia building closer energy ties with China

By Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW, Oct 25 (Reuters) - A series of underground nuclear blasts was carried out in the 1970s and 1980s at an oilfield in Siberia that state firm Rosneft has agreed to develop with China.

Officials told Reuters the field was safe, but environmental experts expressed doubts. The revelation raises questions over the growing energy alliance between Russia, the world's largest energy producer, and China, the leading consumer.

At least seven "peaceful" nuclear detonations were performed at the Srednebotuobinskoye oilfield, according to a report published by the environment ministry of the Republic of Sakha, a remote region in Eastern Siberia also known as Yakutia.

"Yes, indeed, there were nuclear explosions performed at the site," a ministry spokeswoman told Reuters from the city of Yakutsk. No radiation leaks were reported at the site, she said.

Blasts at the field were intended to increase flows from oil-bearing rock and, in one case, create a storage reservoir.

Rosneft recently ceded some of its oil riches by signing a memorandum to create a joint venture with China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) to develop the 1-billion-barrel oilfield.

CEO Igor Sechin signed a new supply agreement this week that would raise Rosneft's exports to China to more than 1 million barrels per day.

The deals reflect President Vladimir Putin's drive to pivot Russia's energy export strategy eastward, away from Europe's stagnating market and to the more dynamic Asia-Pacific region.

The Ministry of Natural Resources in Moscow, which issues licences to develop mineral resources, ruled out any danger.

"We analyse all the risks, including radioactive ones. If a field has been allocated for development, that means we consider there to be no risks," spokesman Nikolai Gudkov said.

But environmental experts expressed concern that oil extracted from the field would contain radioactive elements.

"Any nuclear explosion resembles what happens in a reactor - and the blasts at Chernobyl and Fukushima," said Vladimir Chuprov, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace Russia, referring to the reactor disasters in Ukraine and Japan.

"The results are the same: the emission of radionuclides, including strontium-90 and caesium. There is a risk that the oil will be contaminated."

It was not clear whether Rosneft was aware of the blasts or had told CNPC about them. Neither Rosneft nor CNPC could provide immediate comment on the issue.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Nuclear explosions for industrial purposes were not unusual during the Soviet era, but the practice ended after incidents in which hazardous nuclides escaped. The United States also carried out such explosions, including Operation Plowshare, launched in the 1960s, to unlock resources of natural gas and oil.

As part of its atomic weapons programme, the Soviet Union separately conducted above-ground nuclear tests from 1949 onwards at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, exposing hundreds of thousands of people to dangerous levels of radiation.

China carried out underground tests at Lop Nor, in its northwestern Xinjiang region that borders Kazakhstan and Mongolia, doing the last in 1996 before setting a moratorium.

A nuclide is an atomic nucleus. Some created as a result of nuclear fission, such as strontium and caesium, are unstable and emit harmful radiation until they decay to a stable state.

Strontium-90 has a half-life of 28.8 years, while that of caesium-137 is 30 years, meaning that half of the nuclides created in a nuclear explosion would remain after those periods.

"Of course, there is danger from such deposits. The nuclides last for a long time after blasts and may leak to the surface," Alexei Yablokov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an environmental activist, told Reuters.

UNKNOWN RISKS

The Srednebotuobinskoye field, located north-west of the town of Lensk in Yakutia, was discovered in 1970, and more than 100 exploration wells have been drilled at the site.

The report of the regional ministry, dated November 2011, did not say whether developing the field would be dangerous.

However, scientists say that there may be danger lurking inside the wells.

"Humankind has little experience with deposits where nuclear explosions were carried out," said Viktor Repin of the St Petersburg Institute of Radioactive Hygiene, which has monitored the radioactive situation in Yakutia.

Eight peaceful explosions were carried out in Yakutia, of which two, at diamond deposits, "got out of control", he said. Accounts of the actual number of blasts vary.

"In one explosion, radioactive materials leaked out," he said, adding the site was covered with earth to make it safe.

The Srednebotuobinskoye field holds oil and gas condensate reserves of more than 134 million tonnes and over 155 billion cubic metres of gas. Output from the field started this month.

It is expected to pump 20,000 barrels per day of oil in 2014, rising to more than 100,000 bpd in 2017.

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