Monday fire at Nerpa naval shipyard reveals pattern of neglect in delicate nuclear decommissioning practices

Publish date: March 17, 2014

A fire of trash and debris broke out this morning on or near the Krasnodar decommissioned nuclear submarine at the Nerpa shipyard, but was quickly extinguished, causing no injuries or radioactive releases, Irina Anzulatova, a spokeswoman for the Naval ship repair yard told Bellona today.

A fire of trash and debris broke out this morning on or near the Krasnodar decommissioned nuclear submarine at the Nerpa shipyard, but was quickly extinguished, causing no injuries or radioactive releases, Irina Anzulatova, a spokeswoman for the Naval ship repair yard told Bellona today.

Today’s fire represents the third fire at a shipyard operated by Russia’s Unified Shipbuilding Corporation since 2011.

News agencies reported that heavy black smoke was seen rising from the dock at Nerpa where the Krasnodar – also identified more anonymously by Anzulatova as Submarine 617 – is berthed.

“There are no radiation leaks or other hazards,” Anzulatova told Bellona by telephone. “The fire took place near a decommissioned installation, meaning it contained no nuclear fuel or weaponry.”

She said that all the spent nuclear fuel from the submarine’s two reactors had been removed, and that no workers at the shipyard had been injured in the minor conflagration.  Eight fire engines from the naval yard’s specialized fire unit were mobilized to put out the fire, she said.

Anzulatova said the cause of the fire was not yet known, and that Nerpa officials would release results of an official investigation by midweek.

Fire on or near sub?

But some newswires in northern Russia, referring to an anonymous source at Nerpa, reported careless welding works ignited the blaze. Blogger51, a reputable Murmansk-area Russian-language naval news site also referred to anonymous sources that situated the fire abroad the Krasnodar.

leninsky-komsomol and Krasnodar
The Krasnodar (right) and the Soviet Navy’s first nuclear submarine, the Leninsky Komsomol, undergoing dismantlement at Nerpa. (Photo: Blogger51)

Another undisclosed source told the Flashnord news agency that the fire had broken out on the submarine itself, but Anzulatova contradicted that.

She said the fire, which burned for about an hour, broke out on a metal structure surrounding the decommissioned vessel and burned mostly oily rags and rubber overlay that would have been stripped from the submarine’s outer stealth hull.

Such rubber has a tendency to burn with a heavy black smoke and is often hard to extinguish, as witness the far more serious fire aboard the Yekaterinburg Submarine in December 2011, which killed nine and caught fire with spent nuclear fuel and nuclear weaponry onboard.

That fire raged for nearly 20 hours until the entire submarine was resubmerged to kill the embers of the still-smoldering rubber stealth hull.

Trouble with Unified Shipbuilding Corporation facilities

The Yekaterinburg incident, which took place at the Roslyakovo shipyard near Murmansk, highlighted fire dangers at Russian nuclear naval ship repair yards.

In September, another fire broke out aboard the Tomsk nuclear submarine in the Pacific Fleet at the Zvezda shipyard near Vladivostok. The Tomsk fire bore many similarities to the Yekaterinburg fire: A gas powered saw used to cut through a grate set the vessel’s worn rubber covering, cables and paint on fire.

Fifteen people were injured in the incident. Added to the apparent carelessness with sparks, the Yekaterinburg and Tomsk fires had something else in common: Both Zvezda and the Roslyakovo shipyards are owned and operated by Russia’s Unified Shipbuilding Corporation.

Nerpa, according to the corporation’s website, is also a holding of the United Shipbuilding Company.

Representatives for the company could not immediately be reached for comment about yet another fire at one of their facilities, and the website listed no referenced to this morning’s fire at Nerpa.

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona general director and nuclear physicist, called out the corporation’s neglect for fire safety.

“This is the third time this has happened at facilities operated by the Unified Shipbuilding Corporation, and shows that the mentality toward preventing fires aboard ships they are working on is not high,” he said.

“Were a significantly large fire to engulf the Nerpa shipyard – one that involved not only a vessel but the huge quantity of radioactive material stored there, it could lead to wide scale radiological contamination,” said Bøhmer. ”There must be an investigation and an improvement within the corporation’s safety culture.”

Andrei Zolotkov, chairman of Bellona Murmansk, agreed.

He noted that when an emergency happens at a naval shipyard, even ones dealing with vessels whose nuclear fuel have already been removed, it raises a number of questions.

“Foremost among them,” he said, “is the level of technical safety for conducting such work when such circumstances arise year after year – do we really have to wait until a fire leads to truly tragic consequences?”

He was also reluctant to buy the official version of the fire that Nerpa was releasing. Citing the Yekaterinburg fire in particular, Zolotkov said, “we know how many lies were told by highly placed officials as they tried to explain that emergency.”

The Krasnodar’s history

Anzulatova said the Krasnodar was taken out of operation for scrapping in 2012, making it one of the last Cold War submarines to be taken out of action under US-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction efforts.

Nerpa is a critical location for the decommissioning of nuclear powered submarines. It also currently is hosting the tedious and dangerous dismantlement of the Lepse nuclear service ship, a long time radiological hazard to the port of Murmansk.

Nerpa is located along the coast of Kola Bay on the Barents Sea among the closed naval bases of Snezhogorsk, Gazhiyevo and Alexandrovsk, and is some 100 kilometers from the Russian Norwegian border.

According to Flashnord, the Krasnodar is a 154-meter long submarine that had sailed with Russia’s northern fleet since 1986 until it was decommissioned. It main areas of patrol were the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean sea.

In the history of Russia’s nuclear sub fleet, the Krasnodar was the first Oscar II class submarine, the same class as the luckless Kursk submarine, which sank in the Barents Sea in 2000 during naval exercises when one of its torpedoes leaked fuel and misfired, killing all onboard.

The decommissioning of the Krasnodar is a  €5 million joint effort of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom and Italy under Italy’s commitments to the G-8’s Global Partnership program. Work is expected to be complete on the vessel later this year.