Russia getting rid of floating Chernobyls

15/05/06

MOSCOW. (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 time-consuming.

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 Cola 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. -0-