Ready to unload the Kursk

Publish date: August 30, 2001

Written by: Sergey Filippov

Murmansk Shipping Company says they are ready to unload the spent nuclear fuel from the reactors of the Kursk submarine.

General director of Murmansk Shipping Company Sergey Kiselev forwarded a letter to deputy commander of the Russian Navy on ammunition, vice-admiral Barskov; deputy minister of nuclear energy Lebedev; commander of the Northern Fleet Popov; director of Russian shipbuilding agency Pospelov; and the first deputy minister of transport of the Russian Federation Vyacheslav Ruksha. Murmansk Shipping Company (MSCo) offers to serve an operation on the unloading of spent nuclear fuel from the reactors of the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine, after it has been raised from the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Director of the technical base Atomflot Stanislav Golovinsky told us about this project in details.

Why did Murmansk Shipping Company offer military forces to unload spent nuclear fuel from the reactors of the Kursk?

– The company searches additional usage for our vessels on technical service in addition to operating the nuclear-powered icebreakers. One such use could be unloading spent nuclear fuel from retired nuclear-powered submarines. We have been doing this kind of work for the last three years. Our specialists worked on unloading spent nuclear fuel from nuclear-powered submarines on all three shipyards of the Kola Peninsula such as Nerpa, Shkval and Sevmorput. The results show that we have the competence to execute this kind of work. Besides, Atomflot works under the control of the State Nuclear Regulatory of the Russian Federation and the military inspection. We are licensed to do all these types of work.

In relation to Kursk, we are prepared to do the following work: unload spent nuclear fuel from the reactors of the submarine, and collect liquid radioactive waste, from inside the Kursk. The Serebryanka tanker is equipped for collecting such waste.

Your company is specialized on refueling nuclear reactors installed on icebreakers. Are there any difference between reactors of nuclear-powered submarines and the reactors installed on civil vessels?

– Reactors on nuclear icebreakers are identical to the nuclear installation set up on the Kursk submarine. Before such installations were used on nuclear submarines, they had been tested on nuclear icebreakers. The reactor found on the icebreaker the Arktika, for instance, is a prototype reactor installed on nuclear-powered submarines. Allowing that a submarine has different measures compared to an icebreaker, and that its reactor is more compact, the reactors are principally equal and thus, the unloading process of spent nuclear fuel is the same.

Does the Russian Navy have other methods of unloading the Kursk reactors?

– When the Russian Navy built submarines of the current class it also created special infrastructure. The technical bases of the Russian Navy are cut out to operate the submarines of this class. But because of the bad financial situation of the fleet for the last years, there could be some difficulties. And, on one of the floating technical bases for instance, which is based at the Nerpa shipyard, there is a shortage of personnel, means and diesel fuel for the maintenance system. These are problems existing in the fleet. Vessels that participate in the rescue operation in the Barents Sea will however be prioritized when it comes to fuel provisions. Our technical floating base, the Imandra, is automotive and mobile. Should we receive an order, the specialists of Atomflot will be able to arrive at destination in a rather short period of time. As it is, the icebreakers are only in service for six months a year. The crew of the Imandra is qualified specialists.

How long does it take to unload spent nuclear fuel?

– A complete refueling of a nuclear-powered icebreaker, including unloading spent nuclear fuel and the reloading of fresh fuel, takes 45 days. On Kursk it’s only half the operation that will be executed (there is no need for refueling), so I believe unloading of the reactors will take 10 days maximum.

Will the questions of secrecy from the military side influence on the process of working with the Kursk reactors?

– We are not going to walk inside the reactor compartment and through the whole submarine. Besides, our specialists will unload spent nuclear fuel in cooperation with the military. Employees of Atomflot will work with specialists from the Russian Navy in the reactor compartment, and when it comes to secrecy, as I mentioned above, the Kursk reactors are almost identical to reactor installations on icebreakers. Yes, there are some differences on the submarine: some of the covers are placed differently, the pipe system is shorter etc. Nuclear fuel is something our experts are well familiar with. After the spent nuclear fuel have been unloaded from the submarine by the floating base of Atomflot, trains will carry it to the special reprocessing plant Mayak, in Chelyabinsk county. Besides, we are Russian as well, and are not going to tell everything at each corner.

Do you have any worries about the Kursk reactors having malfunctions?

– We do not worry about that. We trust the experts of the design bureau Rubin, saying that the Kursk reactors are in normal condition.

And what if any emergency situation should occur during the raising of the submarine from the bottom of the Barents Sea? For instance, if the steel cables break and Kursk hits the bottom?

– So what? First of all nuclear reactors have many types of protection, and secondly, before the submarine was built the body of the reactor and all the submarine systems went through comprehensive tests. That is why I do not see any reason to worry or panic. I would much rather be afraid of the ammunition placed onboard the Kursk. I believe that the least of problems we experience are related to the reactors. The reactors are more reliable than for instance ammunition. And I say this as a specialist, who has more than 30 years experience with nuclear power engineering.