Movement on dismantlement of decrepit Lepse nuclear service ship finally on horizon

ingressimage_lespetow2012.png Photo: Bellona

Getting the ship out of water into dry dock will mark a significant milestone in reducing the overall radioactive threat posed by the vessel.

Officials told Russian media that this milestone, which will significantly reduce the overall radiation hazards posed by the ship, will happen in May 2014.

And though the ship has only be moved into position to be taken out of the water, Andrei Zolotkov, chairman of Bellona Murmansk said that “because the [Lepse dismantlement project] was Bellona’s idea,” he greets each new step toward the project’s completion as “positive.”

The Lepse has been laid up at Nerpa, a naval shipyard equipped to handle the ships dangerous nuclear cargo some 20 kilometers up Kola Bay from Murmansk, since September 2012.

That’s nothing compared to the 24 years it spent bobbing at dockside four kilometers north of central Murmansk and its population of 300,000 at the Atomflot nuclear icebreaker port, since its decommissioning in 1988.

The boat was finally towed away from the most populous city above the Arctic Circle in September 2012, after more than a decade of strenuous negotiations among Bellona, the Russian government and financial institutions to back its disposal.

Lepse salvaged for a radioactive career

The Lepse, which in its heyday had been used as a support vessel for Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet, now contains casks and caissons holding 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies –equaling hundreds of tons of radioactive materials – some 300 of which have been damaged, including assemblies that were banged up during offloading from the nuclear icebreaker Lenin.

On top of that, the ship is old. Its keel was laid as a dry goods ship in 1934 and construction on it continued until World War II. It was eventually dumped in a river in the Ukraine. Its reactivation came about when the icebreaker Lenin was under construction and the Lepse’s durable hull saved it from mothballs in 1961.

That year, it was specially retrofitted to refuel the Lenin and the growing icebreaker fleet at sea, pulling spent nuclear fuel off, and refilling icebreakers’ reactors.

Between 1963 and 1981, the Lepse re-loaded nuclear fuel on the nuclear powered icebreakers Lenin, Arktika and Sibir 14 times. In 1981, it was again retrofitted to become a storage ship for irradiated parts and waste as well as spent nuclear fuel assemblies.

Submarine traffic jam

Progress toward getting the Lepse into dry dock at Nerpa, where the real dismantlement and spent nuclear fuel removal procedures can begin in earnest, however, have been thwarted ever since the vessel’s arrival at Nerpa in 2012.

Simply put, miscommunication between Russia’s Ministry of Defense, and Russian State nuclear corporation Rosatom, which is legally responsible for dispensing with the ship, steered the Lepse into a traffic jam at Nerpa with Russia’s oldest nuclear submarine, the Leninsky Komsomol.

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The vaunted submarine has been occupying prime dry dock real estate for the Lespe dismantlement, a multi-million dollar project spearheaded by Bellona and sponsored by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP) and Rosatom.

The Defense Ministry has meanwhile dragged its feet over whether to scrap the historic sub and hammer its metal into safety pins, or weld its three already separated chambers back together and turn it into a museum piece.

The submarine will now be moved, said the Russian news reports, but what will happen to the submarine remains unclear.

bodytextimage_TeslaBRY3814.JPG Photo: Foto: Knut Bry

Touchy questions around historic sub

Bellona’s Zolotkov said the Leninsky Komsomol’s occupancy of the dry dock meant for the Lepse “brought up some definite questions and a lot of ambiguity.”

Murmansk Regional Governor Marina Kovtun entered the fray to try to smooth the arugment. 

“Apparently, there was success in reconciling some of the touchy issues with the Leninsky Komsomol with the Ministry of Defense, which has made it possible to take one step closer realizing the Lepse project,” said Zolotkov.

Last week the Lepse was towed from its seemingly indefinite parking place at Nerpa’s pier No 6 to wharf No 1, from where, it has recently been announced, the submarine will be moved to make way for the tedious Lepse dismantlement, the MKRU Murmansk web portal reported (in Russian).

The new time frame of putting the Lepse into dry dock in 2014 puts the project a year behind Rosatom’s original schedule which was devised in 2010, said Bellona’s Zolotkov.

Wharf No 1 is now being outfitted with a panoply technologies, some of them never used before, to begin the separation of the upper portion of the vessel.  This will reduce the ship’s weight and dimensions, making the move from water to dry dock easier, according to the MKRU reports.  

Anatoly Zakharchev, head of the Integrated Submarine Dismantlement office of Rosatom’s Nuclear and Radiation Safety directorate told MKRU that the entire dismantlement of the Lepse will, from the time it enters dry dock, is scheduled to take several years.

Zakharchev said that the epic tale of the Lepse would finally conclude when the ship and its spent nuclear fuel are sent in special packing to a uniquely conditioned facility at Sayda Bay, a former fishing village annexed by the Russian Navy in 1990 to store hulls and reactor compartments from nuclear submarines. He said the special storage facility for the Lepse parts was scheduled to open in 2015.

Zolotkov noted that, if all goes according to the new delayed schedule, the projected 2017 finishing date for the dismantlement effort will have taken 23 years.

Charles Digges