Russia to start breaking down one of its most radioactive ships next month

The Lepse.
The Lepse.
Thomas Nilsen

Publish date: August 1, 2018

Written by: Charles Digges, Anna Kireeva

The Lepse service vessel, Russia’s waterborne atomic graveyard, has inched a step closer to complete dismantlement as officials say they will begin extracting nuclear fuel rods from its irradiated holds next month.

The Lepse service vessel, Russia’s waterborne atomic graveyard, has inched a step closer to complete dismantlement as officials say they will begin extracting nuclear fuel rods from its irradiated holds next month.

The vessel, which technicians are carefully pulling apart at the Nerpa Shipyard near Murmansk, was used to refuel Russia’s nuclear icebreakers at sea – a job that eventually turned it into one of the world’s most dangerous radioactive hazards. Since its retirement, it has become a flagstone in Northwest Russia’s legacy of Cold War nuclear waste.

Removing spent fuel from the vessel ­– including the extraction of several damaged assemblies ­– is among the most complex nuclear cleanup operations Russia has ever undertaken. When it’s completed in 2020, it will be a decades-long culmination of high-tech preparation paid for by marshaling millions of dollars from nearly a dozen western countries, often in the face of trying political circumstances.

The new phase in the Lepse dismantlement also marks another step toward cleaning up naval and civilian nuclear debris in Northwest Russia. Almost exactly a year ago, the first containers of spent nuclear fuel that accrued over fifty years at Andreyeva Bay were hauled away for storage. Both are projects that Bellona has long advocated for.

backside-Lepse The Lepse's stern section, cut away. Credit: Nerpa Shipyard

During its career, the Lepse amassed 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies in its holds, many from refueling the Lenin, the flagship Soviet icebreaker, between 1965 and 1967. The bulk of those fuel rods are damaged, and defy removal by conventional means.

Last week, Anatoly Grigoryev, who heads up international technical projects at Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, said last week that technicians will start withdrawing some of those rods starting in late September – a long awaited development involving robotic technology, thousands of technicians and a small city of radiation shelters surrounding the vessel’s hull.

The Lepse came into service well before the atomic age. Built in 1934 as a Ukrainian dry goods freighter, the vessel was press-ganged into nuclear service in 1961. In 1988, it was retired and moored at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, where it sat for more than 20 years, laden with its radioactive cargo just four kilometers from central Murmansk, and it’s population of 300,000.

The boat was finally towed from Atomflot to the Nerpa naval shipyard in September 2012, after more than a decade of strenuous negotiations among Bellona, the Russian government and financial institutions – most notably the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development – to mobilize funding for its safe disposal.

But the troubles didn’t stop there. Once the Lespe reached Atomflot, the 84-year-old vessel ran into a traffic jam and bobbed neglected on the water until 2014, when, during foul weather conditions and thick fog, it was finally docked.

In his remarks, Grigoryev said workers expected to withdraw six units of fuel from the Lespe by late next month. Much of this will be accomplished with the use of robotic arms that were specifically designed for the task.

After the Lepse was finally put into dry-dock at Nerpa, it was cut into sections, or what technicians refer to as “storage packages.” These packages comprise five sections of the vessel: the stern section, which is said to be relatively uncontaminated; the section with liquid radioactive waste tanks; the engine and boiler room, and two packaged bow sections, one of which contains the notorious 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies.

When the vessel was hauled out of the water onto a special slipway, the bow storage package, along with the side sections, were completely enclosed to ensure climate control for the spent nuclear fuel assemblies inside.

The vessel was also fitted with a communications system, a ventilation system and trace gas detection equipment to ensure safety for the 5000 technicians working on its dismantlement.

It was in 1994 that the vessel and the dangers it posed to Murmansk caught Bellona’s eye, and the organization mobilized the European Union to allocate funding toward removing it from the city’s harbor and safely dismantling it.

But when it was towed to Nerpa, the Lepse ran into further complications. Rosatom and the Ministry of Defense were locked in a quarrel about what to do with the Leninsky Komsomol nuclear submarine – the Soviet Union’s first ­– which was taking up the Lepse’s berth.

Those difficulties were finally resolved two years ago, and the Lepse was gingerly moved from the water to dry dock. The Leninsky Komsomol, which had already been cut into three pieces, was welded back together as a museum piece.