Italian vessel assists in removing Russian Navy’s nuclear waste

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

An enormous floating dock given to Russia by Italy has been put to use transferring a radioactive barge from the Zvezdochka Shipyard in Severodvinsk to safe storage at the Sayda Bay facility near Murmansk.

The dock, called the Itarus, was a gift from Italy to Moscow as part of a multi-country nuclear cleanup drive called the Global Partnership for Nuclear Safety agreed to 15 years ago by the then-Group of Eight industrialized nations.

The radioactively contaminated barge, called the PM-124, was built in 1960 and used as a floating dock for servicing nuclear submarines in the Soviet Northern Fleet. Slated for use until 1985, it continued collecting fuel assemblies for another 20 years. Since 2005, the fuel assemblies have been removed, but but for a time the barge was used used for storing other forms of solid radioactive waste at Zvezdochka.

While nearly all decommissioned submarines from the Soviet Northern Fleet have been dismantled by a variety of international agreements, a number of other military nuclear hazards still lurk on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, and the PM-124 was one of them.

itarus The Itarus arrives at Sayda Bay. Credit: http://nuclear-submarine-decommissioning.ru


The Itarus is one of two nuclear-waste transport vessels that Italy provided for Russia under its Global Partnership obligations. The other, called the Rossita, a €70 million container ship, is now engaged in ferrying spent nuclear submarine fuel away from Andreyeva Bay, another major radioactive hazard left over after the Cold War.

For its part, the Itarus, which arrived in Russia in 2016, was designed specifically for shuttling reactor compartments from dismantled nuclear submarines to Sayda Bay, a facility run by SevRAO, the northern branch of RosRAO, one of Russia’s state nuclear waste handling contractor.

Rosatom has also billed it as a valuable tool in retrieving nuclear reactors and other radioactive debris intentionally scuttled in Arctic waters by the Soviet Navy.

No storage site for these underwater nuclear artifacts has yet been selected, but the Russian government has promised for years to raise them, and Rosatom’s submarine decommissioning chief, Anatoly Zakharchyov, has often suggested the Itarus, with its submersible dock features, would be handy for this endeavor.

In 2014, the Russian government revealed that the sunken waste in the Arctic includes 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery, and the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel.

Joint Russian and Norwegian expeditions to the K-27 and another sunken sub, the K-159, suggest neither pose imminent contamination risks. But experts on both sides agree it’s better to get them out of the water sooner than later, before radioactive leakage becomes an urgent problem.

Zakharchyov has said the reinvigoration of the  Gremikha naval nuclear waste storage facility could be a critical storage site for undersea nuclear hazards eventually netted by the Itarus.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no