Dutch company Dockwise to ship three discarded Russian submarines to dismantlement

Transportation of Kilo class disel submarine by Dutch company Dockwise.

Publish date: August 16, 2006

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The Dutch company Dockwise Tuesday dispatched one of its semi-submersible vessels, Transshelf, from Rotterdam to the Kola Peninsula to assist the Russian Navy dispach three discarded nuclear powered submarines to dismantlement sites.

Dockwise specialises in heavy transports with unique capabilities. The current contract to remove the Russian submarines involves two Victor-I submarines (K-147 and K-370) and one November class vessel (K-60). All vessels have been out of operation for more than 15 years. All three subs still have their spent nuclear fuel (SNF) on board.

The submarines will be transported on the Dockwise semi-submersible vessel Transshelf. This vessel is 173 meters long and has a width of 40 meters. By submerging the Transshelf vessel beneath the submarines, and blowing the Transshelf’s ballast tanks, the submarines will be lifted from the water and transported on the Transshelf’s deck.

The transport and the dismantling of the two Victor-I class submarines will be co-financed by Canada, and the November class submarine operation is co-funded by Norway.

The Victor-I class submarines will be shipped from the shipyard in Polyarny on the Kola Peninsula to Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk, in the Arkhangelsk Region, for dismantlement. The transport of the first Victor-I, if everything goes as planned, will start on August 21st.

The November class submarine, to be finaced by Norway, will be transported from Gremikha, a former naval base on the eastern coast of the Kola Peninsula, to Polyarny shipyard for dismantlement. The submarine still has nuclear fuel onboard that was last loaded into its two pressurised water reactors back in 1975.

The safety of the operation

According to Dockwise, the transport itself is not very difficult. The type of cargo, however, demands special attention. Henk de Groot of Dockwise said in a statement that: "Safety of the environment and our people is, of course, of the utmost importance. Therefore we have contacted all sorts of nuclear experts to advise us. We don’t want to take any risk. We have also contacted the Norwegian organisation Bellona. This environmental group is very well informed about the Russian nuclear fleet."

Bellona was indeed introduced to the plans of Dockwise at an earlier stage and expressed its confidence in the success of the operation, given that Dockwise is furnished with correct and reliable information regarding the condition of the submarines’ reactors. The method of transport used by Dockwise is unquestionably safer than the one practised by the Russian Navy, which employs rusty pontoons attached to semi bouyant submarines towed by tugboats to dismantlement points.

The K-159 submarine, retired from the Northern Fleet in 1989, sank in the early morning hours on August 30th in 2003 in the Barents Sea while being towed from Gremikha to a dismantlement point with 10 crew members aboard. Only one of them was rescued and only two bodies of its crew members were recovered. Despite promises of Russian Navy brass to lift the K-159 submarine, the derelict vessel still remains at the bottom of the Barents sea with 800 kilograms of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel in its reactors. The towing operation involved rusted out pontoon to kep the K-159 while it was towed though heavy weather by a tugboat.

After this accident, Bellona has driven home the point to nations donating to Russian sub dismantlement projects that each such project should undergo thorough safety scrutiny before it they are funded.

"The operation which will be carried by Dockwise is a positive sign that safety is now taken seriously during implementation of such projects," says Nils Bøhmer, head of the Russian studies group at the Bellona Foundation in Oslo.