Dismantlement of Russia’s most radioactive ship reaches milestone

lespetow2012 The Lepse being towed out of Murmansk’s Atomflot port, where it languished for 20 years, to Nerpa in September 2012. (Photo: Bellona) Credit: Bellona

The Lepse nuclear service ship, long one of the most dangerous Soviet era radiation hazards in Northwest Russia, has finally been emptied of most of the aged spent nuclear fuel in its holds, marking a major milestone in an international cleanup effort that Bellona helped bring to the fore.

The new developments came in late July, when the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which is funding the project, announced that the last of hundreds of spent nuclear fuel assemblies had been removed from the ship’s hull and sent away for reprocessing.

At present, only 19 fuel rods remain onboard. These corroded elements, which are packed in caissons fixed to the Lepse’s hull, will be removed by Russian technicians in 2021.

The fuel removal effort has been one of the most technically demanding nuclear legacy cleanup operations in modern history, representing decades of preparation and the coordination of numerous international partners in often troubled political circumstances.

“This has been a technically complex and challenging task given the uncertainties associated with both the conditions of the old storage facility and spent nuclear fuel,” says Balthasar Lindauer, the EBRD’s director for nuclear safety. “Its successful completion advances nuclear and radiological safety in the region, addressing a serious danger to the people and the environment of the Barents Sea region.”

The news also marks another giant step toward cleaning up the Cold War’s naval and civilian nuclear debris in Northwest Russia. Early last month, officials at Andreyeva Bay, near the Norwegian border, announced they were just a year from removing some of that site’s most complex spent nuclear fuel assemblies.

The Lepse, which was used to unload spent nuclear fuel from Soviet nuclear icebreakers, spent more than two decades languishing at the Atomflot icebreaker port in Murmansk, just four kilometers from the city’s population of 300,000.

Its irradiated holds contained 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies, many of which were damaged when the vessel refueled the Lenin Icebreaker in 1965 and 1967, and defied removal by conventional means.

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 financial institutions – most notably the EBRD – geared toward ensuring its disposal.

Now, all the spent fuel assemblies from the Lepse have been transported from Nerpa back to Atomflot, from where they will be sent by rail for reprocessing at the Mayak Production Association, Russia’s nuclear fuel processing center in the Ural Mountains.

The vessel and its dangers caught Bellona’s eye in 1994, and the organization mobilized to lobby the European Union to allocated funding for its removal from Murmansk harbor and its safe dismantlement.  In 2001, Bellona built a dormitory for Lepse’s cleanup technicians, who had before that lived amid the radiation aboard the ship itself.

Bellona’s connection to the Lepse runs even deeper. Andrei Zolotkov, the head of its Murmansk office, once worked in the vessel’s radiation safety service back in 1974.

“It was there that I worked with the technological water in the cooling tanks, where radiation levels approached some 1 Curie per kilogram,” says Zolotkov. “These are pretty serious radioactivity levels that spoke to the unsatisfactory condition of [the Lepse’s] spent fuel assemblies.”

He adds that it took more than a quarter of a century to fully address those dangerous conditions – and countless discussions and seminars. But Zolotkov now says that “the end of the project has become visible.”

The Lepse’s dismantlement has been supported by the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership of the EBRD, whose Nuclear Window program has drawn together funds to address radioactive relics of the Cold War. Aside from the Lepse and Andreyeva Bay, the EBRD manages the Chernobyl Shelter Fund.

Funding for Nuclear the Window program have been contributed by Norway, Belgium, Canada, the United Kingdom, Finland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as by the European Union.