The amount of oil shipped out from Russia has not increased and no voyages with nuclear waste have taken place this year.
The Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) in Vardø plays a key role in the maritime safety cooperation with Russia. From its location in Norway’s north easternmost corner it is possible to see over the Varanger fjord to Russia’s Kola Peninsula. This is the main route for oil tankers from Murmansk to the markets in Europe. Worst-case scenario is a huge tanker accident, followed by massive oil spill and ecological damages along the Arctic coast.
"We are working closely with emergency forces and rescue coordination centres. If a tanker gets an engine breakdown, we can immediately see where the nearest tow boat is and send assistance," says Ståle Sveinungsen, head of Vardø VTS.
On the large screens on the walls, Ståle Sveinungsen and his fellow officers can see the exact position all maritime traffic within Norwegian economic zone from the south to the maritime border with Russia in north east, including Svalbard and Jan Mayen.
A network of monitoring sensors, vessels identification systems, satellites, coastal radios and the armed forces coastal radar chain are some of the tools connected to the monitors in Vardø.
"When a vessel appears on our screens, we can at once see details like port of departure and arrival, type of cargo and the ships technical details," explains Ståle Sveinungsen.
Joint system with Russia
Norway is now establishing a joint ship reporting system with Russia for surveillance of traffic from Lofoten to Murmansk. All vessels passing through or proceeding to and from ports and anchorages within the Barents area will have to report in to the vessel traffic management information system, named Barents VTMIS. The vessel traffic centres in Vardø and Murmansk are to function as key information nodes for shipping traffic in the north. Especial importances are tankers and ships carrying hazardous cargoes. In northwest Russia, both the ports of Murmansk and Kandalaksha will be integrated to the system as well as voyages in the Russian sector of the Barents Sea.
Vardø VTS is also responsible for providing statistics of the oil transport from Russia around the coast of Finnmark. The tanker traffic increased substantially after the year 2000, but the amount of oil seems to be more or less the same this year as in 2010, between 12 and 14 million tons of oil.
Last autumn, headlines were made internationally as the small cargo vessel Puma sailed into Norwegian waters loaded with spent uranium fuel heading for Murmansk.
Unclear distribution of responsibility triggered a request from the Norwegian Armed Forces Joint Head Quarters to the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities (NRPA) to describe what should be the procedures for such voyages in the future.
"We have a good dialogue on issues related to transport of spent nuclear fuel and are now developing a cooperation agreement on information exchange and preparedness with Vardø VTS," says Eldri Holo with the Radiation Protection Authorities to BarentsObserver. She says Norway for years has initiator to request countries that are shipping nuclear waste to inform the coastal states they are passing.
Last reported vessel with radioactive material to sail outside the coast of Norway was “Zamoskvorechye” that in mid-December last year sailed from Murmansk to Hull in England with radioactive cargo. The Arkhangelsk owned vessel is actively used for transport of uranium between Russia and European ports.
Safer shipping lanes
In order to have a safer shipping traffic in the north, Norway have established pre-fixed lanes for north and south going vessels farther from the coast than earlier. The lanes are monitored from Vardø VTS enabling the operators on duty better to take necessary action if a vessel should get into trouble.
From the monitors in Vardø, the officers are also controlling the huge LNG tankers sailing in and out from the Melkøya plant outside Hammerfest. If another vessel by accident should happen to enter the safety zone around the gas plant, the captain on bridge will within seconds get the Vardø VTS operator on radio.
With the up-coming petroleum boom in the Barents Sea, increased international shipping along the Northern Sea Route and the development of Murmansk as a large-scale port-hub, the importance of safety surveillance by Vardø VTS will only grow in the years to come.
Text & Photos: Thomas Nilsen