Safe decommissioning work at Russia’s Atomflot imperiled by the war in Ukraine

The new Sibir nuclear icebreaker.
The new Sibir nuclear icebreaker.
Baltic Shipyard

Publish date: December 11, 2023

It began in the 1960s as little more than a strip of Arctic coastland with a single wooden dock. Known then only as Base 92 — the 92 a wink to the atomic number of uranium — that dock has now multiplied many times over and grown into an enormous port for the world’s first — to say nothing of largest and only — putatively civilian nuclear icebreaker fleet.

It began in the 1960s as little more than a strip of Arctic coastland with a single wooden dock. Known then only as Base 92 — the 92 a wink to the atomic number of uranium — that dock has now multiplied many times over and grown into an enormous port for the world’s first — to say nothing of largest and only — putatively civilian nuclear icebreaker fleet.

The base, now known as Atomflot — short for “atomic fleet” — grew from servicing solely the Lenin nuclear icebreaker, the world’s first such vessel, to eventually hosting eleven more, many of which have since been decommissioned to make way for yet newer and bigger nuclear vessel designs as part of an enormous push to tame the storied Northern Sea Route.

From then until now, the base — which sits at the mouth of the Kola Fjord and mere kilometers from the center of Murmansk and its 300,000-strong population — has amassed its fair share of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. Much of that has historically been too overwhelming to handle without foreign assistance.

That’s all the more worrying when considering just how much nuclear-powered hardware the port is responsible for. At the moment, Atomflot handles seven nuclear icebreakers: the Sibir and the Arktika — which are both named for two older icebreakers that have recently been decommissioned — the Ural, the 50 let Pobedy, the Yamal, the Vaigach, and the Taimyr, as well as the Sevmorput, which is a nuclear-powered light freight carrier.

Additionally, Atomflot oversees an array of decommissioned nuclear icebreakers that are now classified as “radiation sources.” These include the Lenin, the Sovietsky Soyuz, and the Rossiya. There are also the Imandra and the Lotte, two conventionally power ships that are used as floating service bases for the icebreakers, fueling and defueling them at sea. The Serebryank and the Rossita are also under the domain of Atomflot, where they are used to shuttle casks of spent nuclear fuel to railheads bound for storage.

On shore, Atomflot also maintains a storage facility for treated nuclear fuel in containers, a spent nuclear fuel loading point, a site for the temporary storage of nuclear fuel transportation containers, as well as facilities for storing solid and liquid radioactive waste.

Now that Moscow is lurching into year two of its invasion of Ukraine, the decades of cooperation with the outside world on pressing issues of nuclear safety are over. When war broke out in February of 2022, numerous European nations and major Western banks that had once helped finance the safe overhaul of the Soviet nuclear legacy suspended their funding in protest of the invasion.

At the time, Moscow responded tartly that it would continue these critical cleanup efforts on its own without millions in foreign assistance. But evidence of progress on several projects left unfinished before the outbreak of war is essentially nonexistent. Efforts to rid the old Soviet sub bases at Andreyeva Bay of spent nuclear fuel accrue s over the decades have slowed to a crawl. Progress at Gremikha, an old fishing village turned storage site for old reactor casings has stalled. A broad plan to raise nuclear waste — including two entire nuclear submarines — from the depths of Arctic oceans appears to have been shelved indefinitely. And those are only the most high profile cases.

Unlike those derelict Cold War sites, however, Atomflot is still very much in use. As home port to seven active nuclear icebreaking vessels — and scheduled to take on as many as three more that are currently under construction by the end of the decade — Atomflot is on the vanguard of Moscow’s environmentally questionable manifest destiny in the Arctic.

icebreaker2 The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole. Credit: Murmansky Vestnik

For years Moscow has insisted that an expanded nuclear icebreaker fleet is critical for opening the Northern Sea Route — a 5,600-kilometer-long sea artery between northern Europe and the Alaska’s Bering Strait running along Russia’s Arctic coast — to year-round commercial navigation.

According to Kremlin projections, most of that traffic will come from bringing vast new Siberian deposits of hydrocarbons to market. The icebreakers are meant to burrow through the ice during the cold, dark months of winter, leading convoys of oil and gas tankers bound for ports in warmer water. As Russian fossil fuels are under sanctions in the west, these ports will increasingly be in Asia. Burning these exports will, in turn, contribute to the deteriorating climatic conditions in the Arctic itself, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Until the ice melts, however, Russia icebreakers will lead the way, charging hefty tolls for their services.

Highlights of past foreign cooperation

In the past, it has taken considerable foreign investment for Atomflot to rid itself of some of its most radioactive holdings. The most conspicuous example of such cooperation is the disposal of the Lepse, an old dry goods ship that was retrofitted for use in fueling and defueling nuclear icebreakers at sea. Launced in 1963 to service the Lenin, the Lepse’s career spanned 18 years until it was again repurposed for use as a floating junkyard for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel produced by the nuclear ships it serviced.  Eventually, in 1988, it was permanently docked at Atomflot having become one of the most dangerous radioactive hazards known to humanity.

lepse header. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen) The Lepse. Credit: Thomas Nilsen

Within its holds — at the time parked five kilometers from central Murmansk — were some 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies offloaded from the Lenin, the Sibir and the Arktika nuclear icebreakers, many of them damaged and thus defying removal by conventional means.

It wasn’t until 2012, after years of advocacy by Bellona, that the Lepse was finally towed out of its berth at Atomflot and delivered to a naval shipyard for final dismantlement. Even so, it wasn’t until nine years later, in 2021, that the ship was finally dismantled and its constituent dangers sent for safer storage. Today, 18 damaged spent fuel assemblies from the Lepse’s holds remain and have yet to be safely stored.

This, presumably, would have been done on the considerable foreign funding from Norway — in a process shepherded by Bellona — that allowed the Lepse project to advance as it has. But Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine has prevented any further foreign funding for the project.

The future of decommissioning work at Atomflot

This disconnect from the international community could prove especially vexing once Atomflot progresses in its decommissioning work. According to statements from Russian nuclear officials in December of 2022, ten months into the war, Atomflot had managed to successfully decommission two of its old nuclear icebreakers, the Arktika and the Sibir, despite western sanctions.

But these rosy reports don’t take in to account that fact that most of the technology Atomflot and associated shipyards currently use for megaprojects like nuclear icebreaker dismantlement were provided by Western donor nations in the 1990s. That equipment is now growing old. So long as the war continues, those donor countries are unlikely to replace or repair it.

This distance from the international community is all the more troubling because of what Atomflot still has yet to decommission. Of the current icebreaker fleet, the Rossiya and the Sovietsky Soyuz are slated for decommissioning in 2027, and the Yamal is quickly coming to the end of its engineered lifespan.

Atomflot’s further decommissioning plans are unknown at present. But it is hard to imagine that ongoing work to safely dismantle old vessels with modern methods will be a priority in the current circumstances of war.

This is the third in a series of articles examining the state of nuclear cleanup in Russia since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.