Russia’s most radioactive ship reaches dismantlement milestone

The Lepse.
The Lepse.
Thomas Nilsen

Publish date: April 29, 2020

Written by: Anna Kireeva, Charles Digges

The Lepse service ship, once the most glaring nuclear hazard in the Murmansk harbor, will now be emptied of nearly all of its radioactive cargo by the end of this year, Russian nuclear authorities have said.

The Lepse service ship, once the most glaring nuclear hazard in the Murmansk harbor, will now be emptied of nearly all of its radioactive cargo by the end of this year, Russian nuclear authorities have said.

During its career as a refueling vessel for Soviet era nuclear icebreakers, the Lepse amassed 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies, some of them damaged, creating an environmental danger that bobbed neglected at a Murmansk dock for decades.

After it was taken out of service in 1988, the Lepse was left to languish at Atomflot, the headquarters of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet, where it posed a severe radioactive hazard to Murmansk and its 300,000 residents. Over the course of more than two decades, Bellona worked with Russian officials ensure the vessel’s safe disposal.

Now those plans are coming to fruition as officials say 97 percent of the nuclear fuel loaded into the Lepse’s holds will be emptied at the Nerpa Shipyard, to where the vessels was finally moved in 2012 for its painstaking dismantling.

“In my opinion, ever since the Lepse was pulled out of the water onto dry land, it wasn’t a question of plans and deadlines, but of complying with safety requirements,” said Andrey Zolotkov, who heads Bellona’s offices in Murmansk. “It can stay there whatever unforeseen circumstances arise. The very fact that it is now on land means its nickname ­­– the floating Chernobyl – no longer applies”

To safely break the ship down, technicians have cut the Lepse into sections to isolate the holds where the spent fuel is stored. The work is being carried inside an enormous shelter that was built over the vessel to contain radiation.

Within the shelter, robotic manipulators specially designed for the project work to remove the fuel assemblies and place them in special packaging for their transport.

From the Nerpa shipyard, the fuel assemblies are loaded aboard the Serebyanka service ship and sent to Atomflot. From there they are transported by rail for long-term safe storage at the Mayak nuclear facility.

Technicians at Nerpa have now loaded the fourth of six shipments. And while work was suspended for a week in March to comply with government decrees to halt the spread of Covid-19, officials at Nerpa say the process hasn’t lost its steam.

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

“The work is progressing at an excellent pace,” said Alexander Malyshkin, Nerpa’s project manager for decommissioning the Lespe. “The coordination between Atomflot and Nerpa has been excellent. There is no doubt that 620 spent fuel assemblies will be cut out and unloaded and at Atomflot by the end of this year.”

That leaves 19 spent fuel assemblies aboard, which defy removal by more conventional means. These assemblies were damaged when the Lepse refueled the Lenin nuclear icebreaker, first in 1965 and then again in 1967. A coolant leak in the Lenin’s reactors deformed the assemblies, and now their casings within the Lespe’s storage holds are swollen and malformed.

The Lepse’s story begins in 1934, when it was launched on Ukrainian rivers as a dry goods ship. After World War II, it sat unused for several years until it was retrofitted and pressed into service as a nuclear fuel service vessel in 1961. For nearly the next three decades, it was responsible for loading and unloading uranium fuel at sea for Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet.

All told, the Lepse participated in 14 refueling operations aboard the Lenin as well as the nuclear icebreakers the Sibir and the Arktika. In 1981, the vessel was again retrofitted, this time to so it could accommodate irradiated machine parts and other radioactive waste the nuclear icebreakers needed to offload.

The Lepse’s history took a darker when it was used to help dump radioactive waste in the Kara and Barents Seas, contributing to Russia’s Cold War heritage of f nuclear and radiological hazards strewn across the Arctic sea floor, the extent of which is only beginning to be understood.

It was in the early 1990s that the Lepse and the dangers it posed caught Bellona’s eye, and the organization mobilized the European Union to allocate funding toward removing it from Murmansk harbor and safely dismantling it.

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

The EBRD-managed program is financed by the NDEP Nuclear Window, an international fund with contributions from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK.

The bank is also helping finance the safe removal of some 22,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies from Andreyeva Bay, a former technical base used to service Soviet Northern Fleet Submarines.