Russia plans large nuclear transport vessel with an unclear mission

rossita The Rossita. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen and the Barents Observer)

Russia has announced plans to build an enormous ice-class ship to ferry nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel from points along the Northern Sea Route as well as from its river tributaries, Izvestiya newspaper reported, but it’s unclear from and to where the vessel will transport its cargo.

Construction of the 140-meter long vessel is slated to begin in 2020. Below deck, it will have space for some 40 to 70 spent nuclear fuel transport containers, and on the upper deck it will carry radioactive waste. The Independent Barents Observer reported that the ship is being designed by the Krylov Center in St. Petersburg, which has drafted the blueprints for Russia’s new generation nuclear icebreakers.

The new vessel, which its designers have shopped to Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom as well as the military, appears to be part of two larger and far-reaching federal programs for dealing with the country’s nuclear waste.

Yet, currently, nearly all of the spent fuel arising from Russia’s nuclear legacy of submarines, icebreakers, as well as from working nuclear power plants, is shipped by rail to the Mayak Chemical Combine near Chelyabinsk in the Urals.

Two other vessels donated to Russia by Italy ­–the Rossita and the Itarus ­– are scheduled to go to work shuttling reactor compartments from dismantled submarines to the Sayda Bay storage site run by SevRAO, the northern branch of RosRAO, a Russian state nuclear waste handling contractor. The Pallada, a transport vessel owned by the Nerpa Shipyard, has also helped remove reactor compartments to Sayda Bay.

itarus The Itarus floating nuclear waste dock under construction in Italy. (Photo: Korabel.ru)

The joint effort of these other ships made Andrei Zolotkov, a Bellona nuclear expert who has served on Russia’s nuclear vessels in the Arctic, scratch his head about the possible mission of the new vessel, which presently is only known by its project number: The INF -2.

Zolotkov doesn’t see much use for the INF-2 in the Northwest Russian Arctic, but suggested that it might be useful to various nuclear sites along the Yenesei and Ob rivers, which flow north through Siberia. In particular, it could be used to transport waste to the Krasnoyarsk region.

There, Russia’s national operator for nuclear waste handling, known as NO RAO, is planning to build the country’s first geologic repository for nuclear waste, which is scheduled to start operations in 2024.

Other hints as to the INF-2’s were offered in the official Izvestiya article, which quoted the new ship’s designer as saying the vessel might have an additional duties in Russia’s Far East.

Zolotkov said the vessel might be used to collect spent fuel from Russia’s arduously delayed and controversial first floating nuclear power plant, which Russia’s nuclear utility plans to tow to the far eastern Kamchatka region by 2019.

The floating plant, called the Akademik Lomonosov, is meant to replace the land-based Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant, which is slated for decommissioning in the same year. Its spent fuel will also need to be hauled to reprocessing or storage.

NO RAO is also considering a number of other sites for repositories. Three that have emerged as candidates include the Leningrad Region near St. Petersburg, the Murmansk region, and the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, a former nuclear bomb testing site between the Barents and Kara Seas.

Though Rosatom has recently discounted Novaya Zemlya as too costly a location for nuclear waste storage, it has still received a vote of confidence from the government of the Arkhangelsk Regional government. The local public in the Murmansk and Leningrad Regions, has, on the other hand, not received prospective repository sites in their locations so warmly.

The Barents Observer reported that, later this year, the Rossita will begin collecting spent nuclear fuel containers from Andreyeva Bay for transport from Atomflot by rail to Mayak.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no