Nuclear icebreaker Vaygach sailing from Murmansk along the Norwegian coast to free ships caught in Baltic ice

It is the first time in recent memory that a Russian nuclear powered icebreaker will be sent along the some 25,148-kilometre coastline from Murmansk and along the Norwegian coast as the Vaygach enters the waters of the Baltic Sea.

According to the website of Rosatomflot, the Vaygach left for St. Petersburg on February 19th, after being delayed while the Russian icebreaker company awaited permissions to sail through the narrows of the Danish belts.

All told, eight European states will have to give their nod to the nuclear powered vessel to sail through the tight and busy waterways of the Baltic.

Bellona is watching the progress of the Vaygach with a critical eye. Such passages of Russian nuclear icebreakers are exceedingly rare along Norway’s coast.

February has seen an inordinately extreme situation with ice in the Baltic Sea. According to the Federal Agency for Sea and River Transport, partial thaws, strong winds, and subsequent cold snaps in several areas have led to ice as thick as a metre.

Nuclear icebreakers a rare sight along Norwegian coast

Igor Kudrik, an expert on the Russian nuclear industry and maritime affairs indicated several occasions on which Russian nuclear icebreakers had passed through Norwegian waters. New ships passed along the Norwegian coast en route from the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg to Murmansk. On another occasion in the early 1990s, a Russian nuclear icebreak visted the northern Norwegian port of Tromsø.

In 2007, reported Finnish daily Hesingen Sanomat, Russia conducted tests on nuclear icebreakers in th Gulf of Finland. According to the Finnish Centre for Radiation and Nuclear Safety, STUK, Finnish authorities were not informed about these test, and have received no notification of the Vaygach‘s arrival.

The nuclear transport vessel Sevmorput was in Asia back in Soviet times.

Few ways to notify shore of catastrophe

At issue is the lack of any comprehensive mechanisms of dealing with an emergency aboard such a vessel were one to occur. According to standard regulations, Norwegian officials are to be informed of any vessel of more than 5000 tonnes displacement that passes by its coast.  The Vaygach is 21,000 tonnes displacement.

Yet it is unclear how this information process is supposed to function and when officials are to be informed.

Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environmental Rights Centre (ERC) Bellona, zeroed in on the wisdom of using a nuclear powered icebreaker in the overcrowded shipping conditions of the craggy shallows of the Baltic Sea.

“Absolutely safe nuclear energy installations do not exist anywhere in the world, there are no exceptions including the KLT-40 reactor, which is used aboard icebreakers,” said Nikitin.

Is it safe to use nuclear icebreakers in the Baltic?

“The Gulf of Finland (on the Baltic near St. Petersburg) is shallow, and is congested with traffic. To use a nuclear powered ship in such a water body means to increase risks, adding to oil spill risks a radioactive risk,” said Nikitin, adding that “we would like to see the Baltic as a non-nuclear sea, like the Black Sea.” 

Vladimir Blinov, spokesman Russia’s Atomflot nuclear icebreaker port in Murmansk, told RIA Novosti that Artic class icebreakers had never worked in the Baltic Region before. Oleg, Kudryavtsev, the chief state inspector for icebreaker operations in the administration of Big Port St. Petersburg, confirmed to the agency that the Vaygach is expected in the coming days. He noted that prior to this winter, Atomflot and the Rosmorport division of the Federal Agency for Sea and River Transport, had never had to work cooperatively.

Andrei Smirnov, deputy general director of icebreaker deployment at Atomflot, told Bellona Web in an interview that there is not talk of changing the Vaygach’s area of deployment, and that it would only be working in the Baltic region temporarily

“The preliminary announcements were two to three weeks,” he said.

Smirnov said the nuclear icebreaker fleet was safe.

“The 52-year experience of using icebreakers has shown that the most environmentally safe source of energy for ship propulsion systems are nuclear installations.” However, he was unable to name the norms governing emissions of radionuclides for ship reactors.

Bellona’s catalogues dangers of nuclear icebreakers

But Bellona has collected data and published a report entitled “The Arctic Nuclear Challenge” that includes an accounting of the dangers posed by nuclear icebreakers. The report indicates that an icebreaker reactor annually builds up 30 cubic metres of liquid radioactive waste with an activity level of 5.55 gigaBecquerel, eight cubic metres of solid radioactive waste of an activity level of 200 gigBequerel, as well as 800 kilograms of ion-exchanging martial with an activity level of 185 gigBecquerel. All told, an icebreaker reactor produces some 600-700 gigaBecquerels per year. This waste typically is kept aboard the ship, turning it into a unique floating radioactive waste storage facility

Icebreakers also build up gaseous radioactive waste which is emitted into the atmosphere via a ventilation pipe. “The radioactivity gaseous emissions on nuclear vessels is practically wholly comprised of inert radioactive gasses and constitute 37 to 370 gigaBequerels a year,” says the Bellona report. 

The Vaygach

The Vaygach is a nuclear icebreaker whose specific purpose is to accompany convoys of vessels to the mouths of Siberian rivers and its characterized by its reduced draught. The vessel was built in a Finnish shipyard by commission of the Soviet Union in 1989. It set to sea in 1990. Its reactor unit was built at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg.

But environmentalists cannot help but recall incidents aboard the nuclear icebreaker Lenin when icebreakers are deployed. The Lenin, Russia’s first icebreaker, experienced two serious reactor accidents in 1965 and 1967. The entire compartment containing the troubled reactors had to be cut out of the icebreaker, which were later sunk near the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya.  

Icebreakers currently in service have other big problems, namely leaks of their steam generators. The steam generator serves as a barrier between the radioactive first compartment of the icebreaker’s reactor and the non-radioactive second compartment.

“Leaks in the piping system of steam generators remain the most frequent operational incident during the deployment of nuclear vessels,” candidly wrote the Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Technical and Atomic Supervision, Russia nuclear oversight agency (Rostekhnadzor), in its last yearly report.

Rostekhnadzor registered 13 operational incidents (in 2008, there were 15) and 7 of them were issues with the steam generators.

“The main reason that the steam generator units go out of order is still not fully understood,” reads the Rostekhnadzor report.

As a result of this discovered defect, the Vaygach itself underwent work on its steam generator No. 3 in February of 2003. Leaks of the Vyagach’s steam generator in the areas of the Baltic and near Scandinavian countries cannot be ruled out.