Russia historic nuclear icebreaker dismantlement is going safely – just take their word for it

icebreaker_reactor_compartment The nuclear icebreakers reactor compartment.

Russia has begun the dismantlement of the Sibir nuclear icebreaker – a Soviet era superstructure that broke Arctic ice for 15 years – marking the world’s first attempt to safely break down a vessel of its kind. Earlier this week Russian media reported the vessel’s two reactors had been removed as part of a decommissioning plan that has evolved a number of times.

But there are concerns about how safely the work is progressing: Official releases on the dismantlement operations specify that some safety measures were observed while they fail to mention others. Likewise the reactor removal  went ahead without public hearings, where many of these details would have been revealed.

The dismantlement work on the Sibir, which launched in 1978 as part of the Soviet Arkitka icebreaker line, is underway at the Nerpa Shipyard north of Murmansk. The ship retired from service 1993 and the spent fuel was taken out of its reactors in 1996, when the reactor had operated for 100,000 hours. It was towed to Nerpa in 2016.

The initial decommissioning plan envisioned scrapping the vessel entirely, as has been done with Russia’s nuclear submarines. In those circumstances the icebreaker would have been cut into separate compartments.

Sibir_icebreaker The Sibir icebreaker at the Atomflot port. Credit: Anna Kireeva

Later Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, rethought the plan: after the reactor removal, the remainder of the vessel will be scrubbed of radiation and returned to Atomflot. The reactor compartment will be sent to Sayda Bay. Atomflot has said this approach will be cheaper.

According to a release from the Nerpa Shipyard, it took three hours to remove each 70-ton reactor with a crane shrouded with radiation protection. They were each protected with extra sealing and placed in caissons for storage.

The entire dismantling process is expected to take until March, for a total price tag of $12 million – down from $29 million, according to Atomflot’s revised plan.

Andrei Zolotkov, a Murmansk-based nuclear icebreaker expert with Bellona, said that removing the reactors can be a dangerous operation, but other hazardous tasks lie ahead.

Yet he also noted that the official release from the Nerpa Shipyard was scant on details about how the workers removing the reactor were protected. While it supplied lavish details on protective measures for the crane and its operator, it failed to specify safety measures for other personnel.

These are measures that might have been disclosed if the shipyard had held  public hearings on the reactor removal – hearings which are required by law when an operation potentially threatens the environment,.

This regulation, however, is only selectively observed in Russia, as responses from Nerpa from Bellona make clear. Its representatives said simply that its own environmental impact assessment process hadn’t involved public discussion.

It added, however, that the dismantling process would not contaminate air or waterbodies around Murmansk, and that the radiation dose from each possible source within the vessel would be no more than 4.45×10-7 Sv per year – or less than one percent of the yearly radiation dose limit for an individual.

“In general,” concluded Nerpa’s statement to Bellona, “the implementation of the project to decommission the nuclear icebreaker Sibir will not have a negative impact on the environment.”

Unfortunately, we have to take their word for it.