An old supper date with Bellona helped dismantle nuclear Russia’s nuclear waste legacy – starting with the Lepse

The Lepse's stern section, cut away.
The Lepse's stern section, cut away.
Nerpa Shipyard

Publish date: October 3, 2018

As Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s outgoing general manager, recalls it, Europe’s decision to help fund a massive clean up of Soviet-era nuclear trash was made in the course of a very brief meal.

As Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s outgoing general manager, recalls it, Europe’s decision to help fund a massive clean up of Soviet-era nuclear trash was made in the course of a very brief meal.

The situation was dire but largely unknown outside Russia’s borders. An old dry cargo ship called the Lepse, laden with 639 nuclear fuel assemblies, floated nearly forgotten just two kilometers from central Murmansk, Russia’s Arctic capital, and its population of 300,000.

For three decades the ship, which dated from before the Second World War, was a mobile water-bourn filling station for the Soviet nuclear icebreaker fleet ­– refueling and defueling their reactors at sea. By 1988, however, the Lepse was taken out of service and soon become a floating radioactive menace.

At the time, the technology to pull it apart and send the spent fuel onboard to safer storage didn’t yet exist.

Neither did the political will. Moscow, which was in the throes of its post-Soviet economic meltdown, had other problems on its mind. Even so, when Russian environmentalists tried to bring the Lepse and other nuclear threats to public attention they were harassed and arrested by the remnants of the KGB.

Europe, for its part, was turning a blind eye. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the European Union’s policy was let Russia deal with its nuclear waste legacy on its own.

But Bellona had been busy collecting evidence that Russia needed more help than anyone in either Europe or Moscow was willing to fathom.

In the 1990s Bellona published numerous reports cataloguing Northwest Russia’s nuclear woes, including 200 decaying nuclear submarines, their reactors still laden with spent nuclear fuel. If left to rust at dockside, the threat of contamination was unprecedented — a Chernobyl in slow motion. Further from shore, under the waves, lurked other submarines and nuclear waste intentionally dumped by the Soviet Navy. Still more radioactive spent fuel was piling up in storage tanks and open-air bins on military bases and in shipyards throughout the Russian Arctic.

lepse shelter 2 Nils Bøhmer, Bellona's outgoing general manager, speaking at last week's event at the Lepse nuclear service ship. Credit: Bellona

In a way, the Lepse and its radioactive holds was just the icing on the cake. But it was clear the problem was too big for Russia to cope with alone.

So Bøhmer and Bellona staff tried a different approach with Europe. They asked the European Commission on the Environment out to supper – aboard the Lepse itself.

Among the table settings was a Geiger counter, and somewhere during the first course, the Geiger counter began to squeal.

lepse shelter Part of the enormous shelter in which the Lepse's spent nuclear fuel assemblies are being extracted. Credit: Bellona

“Two things happened at once,” Bøhmer recalled last week, while he attended another gathering devoted to the Lepse. “First, this became the shortest official dinner I’ve ever attended. Second, the European Commission allocated funding to solve the Lepse problem.”

The funding pledge from Europe – which was allocated in a record-breaking four weeks – opened the floodgates, and over the next two and a half decades, tens of billions of dollars would pour into Russia from Europe aimed at cleaning up the Soviet legacy of radioactive waste.

Gone, for instance, are those 200 nuclear submarines that bobbed neglected at dockside in bases surrounding Murmansk. And on the way to being gone are the dangers posed by 22,000 radioactive fuel assemblies that had piled up since the 1960s in a nearly forgotten submarine base called Andreyeva Bay.

Last week, Bellona and European officials again gathered at the site of the Lepse, but this time there was nowhere to set a supper table. The Lepse has finally been cut to pieces at the Nerpa Shipyard, north of Murmansk, where it was finally brought after Bellona’s two-decade-long crusade to see it safely dismantled.

This gathering, which brought together representatives from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, the government of Murmansk, and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development was dedicated to the opening of a huge shelter, within which the process of extracting the nuclear fuel rods housed aboard the Lepse will finally begin.

The good news has been a long time in the coming.

Removing the 639 fuel rods from the Lepse’s holds is one of the most technically demanding nuclear legacy cleanup operations Russia has ever undertaken. Among those fuel rods are several that were damaged when the Lepse refueled the Lenin nuclear icebreaker in the 1960s – and these rods defy removal by conventional means.

lepse shelter 4 The shelter for extracting the Lepse's spent nuclear fuel assemblies as seen from the outside. Credit: Bellona

And it is here that the new shelter is crucial. As technicians envision it, removing the damaged rods – many of which have leaked or corroded within their storage cylinders aboard the Lepse, are simply too dangerous to be exposed to the environment at all.

Instead, technicians en will cut these fuel rods out of the hold, taking with them much of their surroundings. These amalgams of metal and fuel will then be sealed in one container, then another and then a third before they leave the shelter for remote storage.

According to Sergei Nokhrin, the project manager for the Lepse’s dismantlement, the first parcels of the more easily to removes fuel will be extracted from the ship by the end of this year. All of the fuel rods, he said, will be gone by 2020, sent to the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Urals for reprocessing and storage.

The sections of the Lepse that never contained spent nuclear fuel – the bow and stern for instance – will be sent for storage at Sayda Bay, a defunct military base in the Arctic that has been repurposed to house low-level nuclear waste.

Aside from helping rid Northwest Russia of one of its most potent sources of possible radioactive contamination, the new shelter will also spare the some 5,000 technicians endeavoring to dismantle the Lepse from heightened doses of radiation while they do their work.

And though it took almost years of strenuous negotiations Bellona, Rosatom and European funders to get the job done, it was certainly worth the price of that first dinner to jump-start the process.