Toxic fuel from Russian rockets in Arctic waters raises environmental and legal issues

By Andreas Østhagen, High North News - October 9, 2017
The 'Rokot' rocket, a repurposed Cold War-era ICBM is used to launch satellites — but uses a toxic fuel that's raised concerns in Arctic areas where the stages fall. (Andrei Morgunov /
The ‘Rokot’ rocket, a repurposed Cold War-era ICBM is used to launch satellites — but uses a toxic fuel that’s raised concerns in Arctic areas where the stages fall. (Andrei Morgunov /

A recent study published in the journal Polar Record argues that old Russian satellite-carrying rockets end up dumping highly toxic fuel in both the Norwegian side of the Barents Sea and Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada, causing international environmental and legal issues.

The study describes how ballistic missiles named ‘Rockot’ are dropped in stages as they launch satellites into orbit. These ‘stages’ contain residual fuel of the type unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), a highly toxic chemical that has caused considerable health and environmental damage in Kazakhstan and Russia. Since 2002, these drops have happened 10 times, with the parts of the rockets containing unused fuel dropped in the Barents Sea and Baffin Bay in the Arctic. The next launch is scheduled for Friday, October 13.

[Nunavut premier condemns Russian rocket launch, demands it be halted]

“This is an issue requiring immediate action by the Norwegian, Danish and Canadian governments,” says Michael Byers, a professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and one of the report’s two authors. He argues that “at a minimum, the upcoming launch should be postponed while scientists assess the risks and governments identify non-toxic alternative launch systems, which already exist in the United States, Europe, and even in Russia.”

When the rockets ascend towards space, they separate into what is called “stages.” Stage 1 is 17.2 meters long, while stage 2 is 3.9 meters long. When the stages are shed at predefined points, they are carrying surplus fuel of up to 8 tonnes, with the surplus being carried to ensure they can complete their mission. The stages are then dropped, first in the Barents Sea around 150 kilometers north of the Norwegian mainland (Finnmark), and then in northern Baffin Bay, the body of water separating Nunavut (Canada) and Greenland.

A remnant from the Cold War

The fuel onboard, UDMH, is a remnant from the Cold War. In contrast to more modern and less toxic rocket fuel, it is stable at room temperature and thus allow its users to fill up the rocket and leave it in a launch tube for years. It is therefore not only Russia that has been using the fuel, but a range of actors from the United States to Japan and China.

Yet, concerns about its extreme toxicity have led to some of these countries looking at alternatives and phasing out the use of UDMH. An United Nations Development Program report from Kazakhstan states that the fuel “is dangerous in all methods of transmission to people” and chronicles serious health issues amongst people in areas that had been affected by the rocket fuel. A Russian study from the Northern Medical University later proved that “the death rate in affected areas has risen by 30 percent, mostly due to liver, blood and genetic diseases.”

Areas vital to local human populations

“The main concern is the effect the residual fuel might have on marine and human life in these two parts of the Arctic. Both debris fields in the Barents Sea and in Baffin Bay are located in the most biologically active parts of the Arctic, home to everything from Arctic cod to sea mammals and birds. In addition, these are areas vital to local human populations that sustain themselves off the marine activity,” says Byers.

Moreover, the satellites that the ‘Rockots’ are carrying are paid for by third parties, such as the European Space Agency and several EU-member states like France and the Netherlands. This, Byers explains, makes these third parties jointly responsible under international law for any damage caused by the rocket launches. He recommends:

“The European Space Agency should stop launching satellites into sun-synchronous orbit on UDMH-fuelled rockets from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, unless and until it can be proved that UDMH poses no risk of serious harm to the Arctic environment and its peoples.”

Scheduled for October 13

In addition, Byers calls for scientific studies of the marine environment to determine the precise effects of UDMH in Arctic waters, as well as speeding up the process of replacing old SS-19 missiles with more modern alternatives.

The next launch is scheduled for October 13, as a joint project of the European Space Agency and the Dutch Space Agency. “Ideally, this launch will be postponed while everyone concerned learns more about the risks and possible solutions,” says Byers.