Russian nuclear icebreaker Rossiya taking last voyage along Norway’s coast

ingressimage_rossiya_retirement.jpeg Photo: Coutesy of Thomas Nilsen, the Barents Observer

Katerina Ananeva told Bellona on Thursday by telephone that the vessel was returning to Murmansk, and that the Russian government and Atomflot would allow the Rossiya to work for “several more months” before a decision would be taken to decommission the 30-year-old vessel.

The Rossiya put to sea in 1985.

“In the Murmansk port, the icebreaker will be inspected by the Russian registry of shipping,” Ananeva said.  “Then the nuclear icebreaker is expected work in the White Sea until the middle of May.”

The Rossiya, which operates on two reactors, has been located in the Gulf of Finland since mid January where it was deployed to help break ice floes during an unseasonably cold winter. 

Concerns about near-coast nuclear passages in Norway

Norwegian authorities have recently been concerned about the number of nuclear cargos passing along their coast bound for Murmansk about which they have not been informed.

But Ole Harbitz, head of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), Thursday told Bellona that it was aware of the passage of the Rossiya off the coast of Norway on its return trip to Murmansk.

“We were made aware of [the Rossiya’s] passage in January on its way to the Gulf of Finland, and that it planned to return sometime in April,” he said by telephone. The NRPA said it was also warned by Denmark of the Rossiya’s impending passage off its coast.

On April 1, a cargo of highly enriched uranium from a Soviet-era Czech research reactor was returned via the Mikhail Dudin freighter to Russia via Murmansk. Neither the Czech Republic, Poland – the port from which the cargo departed – nor Russia informed Norway of the passage of the dangerous load.

At that time, Harbitz told the Barents Observer news portal that the NRPA had not been informed about the progress of the nuclear cargo off Norway’s coast.

Several such secret nuclear loads have passed off the Norwegian coast since 2009.

According to the website Marinetraffic.com, the Rossiya at midday Thursday had yet to enter Norwegian coastal waters and was proceeding past the northern coast of Denmark at some 16 knots.

The Rossiya, according to the website, was due to put into the Atomflot port on April 15.

Passage should cause no special concern

Andrei Zolotkov, director of Bellona Murmansk, said by telephone that there was no special reason for alarm about the Rossiya passing Norway’s coast.

“Of course, any kind of accident aboard a nuclear vessel traveling through the Baltic Sea would be cause for alarm and possibly close the Baltic Sea to nuclear icebreakers,” he said.  “Therefore the passage of such vessels is given special attention.”

“Other icebreakers will be built that will work in the Baltic, and that means money for Atomflot,” said Zolotkov.

Indeed, as reported by the Barents Observer, Atomflot expects three new nuclear icebreakers by 2027. Construction of the first began last year.

The present fleet of Russian nuclear icebreakers includes of four ships run on two reactors – the Sovietsky Soyuz, the 50 Years Victory, the Yamal and the Rossiya, said the Barents Observer.

It also includes two one-reactor vessels, the Taimyr and the Vaygach, said the portal. .

The Soviet Union’s first icebreaker, the Lenin has been taken out of service and turned into a museum. The Sibir as well as the Arktika are also out of service, said the Barents Observer

Dangers of nuclear icebreakers

The Rossiya has experienced no major radiological or other technical problems during its service period, and has even been used to shuttle tourists to the North Pole.

But other icebreaker mishaps over the past several years have given pause to Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general manager and nuclear physicist

“The age of such vessels, the wear on reactors, and examples of other mishaps aboard ships of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet are a cause for concern to Norway’s public and the population of those countries the Rossiya will also pass,” he said.

A recent example was a fire aboard Russia’s Vaygach nuclear powered icebreaker, which killed two in December 2011.

The Vaygach, which had departed from Dudinka 2,800 kilometers northeast of Moscow, was breaking the way for the freight carrier Kapitan Danilkin along the Yenisei river that runs north through Siberia when the blaze broke out.

Though the fire left the Vaygach’s reactor untouched, it burned for three hours at the mouth of the Yenisei River were it spills into the Kara Sea.

A third man suffered burns and smoke inhalation, but the Vaygach eventually returned to Atomflot under its own steam. The Vaygach put to sea in 1990.

In another 2011 incident, this one in May, the icebreaker Taimyr was forced to return to port when tiny cracks in the first cooling circuit of the ship’s reactor were found to be leaking large quantities of cooling water.

Coolant leak hobbles Taimyr at sea

As loss of cooling systems was the primary cause for the disaster at Fukushima, the Taimyr’s coolant mishap was treated seriously, and with an uncharacteristic degree of openness by Russian officials that worked to return the ship to port, particularly the Emergency Services Ministry.

The coolant loss had caused increased radiation levels in the reactor room of the Taimyr, and upon visual inspection, a hole, which was leaking some 20 to 30 liters of cooling water a day, was discovered in the welding, a highly placed source within Atomflot, told Bellona at the time.

The cause of the was thought to be either metal fatigue, faulty welding or both. The Taimyr, like the Vaygach, was working in the Yenisei Gulf on the northern coast of western Siberia in the Kara Sea when the coolant leak was discovered.

The 23-year-old Taimyr was able to return to port under the power of its diesel generators after the reactor was shut down, and was escorted back into port by two other icebreakers, the Yamal, and the Rossiya itself.

In an effort to allay fears of any ongoing radiological leaks, Atomflot officials held a press conference aboard the Taimyr when it arrived back in Murmansk harbor.

Two fires on the 50 Year Victory before it sets sail

And in 2005, the 50 Years Victory, Russia’s newest icebreaker, caught fire in 2005 at the Baltiisky shipyard while still under construction. No radiation releases occurred as no fuel had been loaded onto the ship. The vessel also caught fire while under construction in 2004.

The keel of the 50 Years Victory was laid in 1989 and it was floated at the end of 1993. But due to the lack of financing, construction was suspended. It is now currently part of Russia’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers.

The Rossiya has made the journey to the Gulf of Finland before, in 2011, when it was dispatched to help with commercial navigation during a frigid winter. During that time, the Barents Observer reported, it helped free 58 vessels that were locked in the ice.

The Rossiya’s captain, Alexander Spirin, told Arctic TV in quotes reprinted by the Barents Observer in January that, “This could be the last voyage [the Rossiya] ever makes, as it has exceeded its lifetime.”

“Of course it is sad. The vessel is still ‘alive’ – all technical equipment still works and maintenance and repair have been managed on schedule,” said Spirin in his broadcast remarks.

Charles Digges