|FLOATING CHERNOBYL ?
By RIA Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin
I'd like to start with some figures. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built more nuclear-powered ships than any
other country - about 250 nuclear missile submarines, five surface ships, including several heavy missile cruises of
the Admiral Ushakov class, eight ice-breakers, the most famous of which bore Lenin's name, and one lighter
carrier ship Sevmorput.
But no infrastructure was built for scrapping these ships after decommissioning. There was no system for the
storage and disposal of liquid and solid spent fuel and other radioactive waste.
As a result, Russia has inherited a huge problem of cleaning its territorial waters and lands of what people have
dubbed the "floating Chernobyls." The sinking of any decommissioned submarine with nuclear fuel may trigger a
major ecological disaster.
The spent fuel of all nuclear submarines amounts to 25 million curies. The aggregate weight of all radioactive
construction materials slated for disposal exceeds 150,000 tons, and that of metal, about 1.5 million tons. A special
"atomic train" will have to make a hundred trips to get this spent fuel from the Northern and Pacific fleets, and take
it to the Mayak waste treatment plant in the southern Urals. However, it can make 10-15 such trips annually.
And one more figure, which is indispensable for understanding the scale of the problem - $4 billion will have to be
spent on nuclear waste disposal and recovery of contaminated territories.
Russia has been dealing with the scrapping of nuclear submarines and surface ships for many years. Its annual
spending for the purpose stands at about 2 billion budget rubles (about $70 million) per year. Substantial help is
coming from the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Before 2001, the U.S.
earmarked $40 million a year for the purpose. Now that the disposal of the decommissioned strategic nuclear
submarines has almost been completed, this assistance has been reduced to $20 million. But other countries have
increased their help under the Global Partnership program. In 2004, the relevant figure was $74 million. This
comprehensive effort has allowed Russia to scrap 133 nuclear submarines, including 90 subs in its Northern Fleet
and 43 in its Pacific Fleet.
Deputy head of the Federal Agency for Nuclear Power Sergei Antipov, the number one domestic expert on
submarine dismantling, believes that although by 2012 Russia will have disposed of its submarines, it will still have
to remove spent fuel from coastal storage facilities, and recover contaminated territories. These tasks will be very
The problem is not limited to the shortage of funds allocated by donor countries, even though it is part of it. After
the approval of the Global Partnership program in Kananaskis, Canada, the G8 promised to earmark $2 billion for
this purpose. But only $438.5 million worth of working contracts have been concluded up to now. A mere $313.48
million have been received by disposal facilities. Meanwhile, Russia has been increasing its contribution to
submarine utilization every year and has already spent at least $400 million to this end, including $290 million
since Kananaskis. It is planning to bring its share in the Global Partnership to $850 million by the year 2012.
But the main headache is the enormous scale of what still has to be done. Moreover, it is also essential to ensure
the safety of the disposal effort.
Today, Germany is helping Russia to build coastal storage platforms for reactor compartments, on the Kola
Peninsular, Saida Bay. It should be ready by 2010. A total of 120 compartments with submarine nuclear reactors
will be kept on open grounds, losing their radioactivity.
A floating dock will also have to be built for delivering these compartments to the platforms from the Nerpa
Shipyard near Murmansk, which dismantles submarines. Railway carts are a must for transporting compartments,
which weigh 1,600 tons. There should also be premises for repairing reactor compartments and coating them with
anti-corrosion materials. Houses for the service personnel will have to be assembled as well.
The pot is kept boiling. The Germans have already spent half of the allotted sum of 300 million euros, and the first
platform for 40 compartments was supposed to be opened this summer. But Federal Agency for Nuclear Power
officials asked their German colleagues to expand the storage area for another 30 compartments in order to keep
150 compartments instead of 120 in the Saida Bay. The Germans have accepted the proposal, and, hence, the
construction of the platforms will be somewhat delayed.
Britain and Norway are greatly helping the northwest of Russia in dismantling submarines and ensuring safe
storage of spent nuclear fuel. Their money was used to dispose of two Project 949 Granite submarines and two
Project 671 Shchuka submarines. The Andreyev Bay is being decontaminated. It contains one of the world's
biggest storage facilities for more than 20,000 reactor clusters. Italy is also joining the effort. It will allot 360 million
euros to build a facility for the procession and storage of radioactive waste in the Andreyev Bay, and special
containers for the removal of fuel from the village of Gremikha, located some 350 km from the Kola Gulf.
In the past, this village housed a big base of nuclear submarines, which left about 800 contaminated reactor
clusters with 1.5 tons of radioactive materials. Gremikha is not connected with Murmansk by a land road - only by
air or sea. This makes it impossible to transport clusters to the Mayak plant by railway.
Transportation of submarines from storage facilities to disposal plants is also a problem, which is slowing down
their scrapping. In the north the distance is no more than 500 km, but in the Far East, the distance from the
Kamchatka Peninsular, where submarines are kept, to processing plants in Primorye Territory is 2,500 km. Unlike
the Polar Circle, in the Far East the only way is to ship submarines by sea. The journey of one submarine costs no
less than $1 million.
This is the reason why the Far East is somewhat behind the north in implementing the submarine disposal
schedule. In the Arctic, only 30 out of 120 have not been dismantled, whereas in the Far East, the relevant figures
are 34 and 77.
Tokyo has promised to precipitate submarine disposal in the Far East. In the 1990s Japan helped to build a ship
for the storage and procession of liquid radioactive waste, and funded the disposal of one submarine in 2004.
After Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan, Tokyo paid for the scrapping of another five submarines. Although, some
people in Japan claim that Russia is spending the money of the Japanese taxpayers not only to get rid Russia of
the old submarines, which spell ecological disaster for the ocean and its fish, but also to develop more modern
combat ships. This has nothing to do with reality, but is always hard to prove.
For all its difficulties, Russia is abiding by its commitments in good faith, said Sergei Antipov. When this article is
posted, maybe Russia will get rid of another floating Chernobyl.
dr Piotr Mierzejewski, hr. Calmont