URGENT: Radioactive ship reported sunk while moored near Russia’s Murmansk, authorities keep mum

Publish date: June 6, 2010

ST. PETERSBURG – Disturbing reports are coming from Russia that the former nuclear maintenance vessel Severka may have sunk at the wharf of a shiprepairing yard in Alexandrovsk (former Polyarny) on the Kola Peninsula, in close vicinity to the large administrative centre of Murmansk. Russian authorities have yet to confirm or deny the information.

Before the 1990s, the Severka was used to move spent nuclear fuel in Soviet-produced shipping containers of the type TK-12 from Andreyeva Bay – the former naval base in the northwestern part of the Kola Peninsula – to a transshipment site in Murmansk dubbed Area SRZ-35. There, not far from the grounds of Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear fleet operator, the spent nuclear fuel was reloaded into railway cars to be shipped off to the reprocessing plant Mayak in the Urals.

The Severka was also equipped with special tanks for shipments of liquid radioactive waste.

Information about the Severka’s sinking appeared Monday in a Russian-language blog which said the vessel had gone under on May 24th while moored at a wharf operated by Shiprepairing Yard No. 10 in Alexandrovsk.

Alexandrovsk is a restricted-access area called in Russian by the acronym of ZATO, which stands for “closed administrative territorial entities” – or closed cities dealing with secretive scientific or military procedures.   

Disturbingly, the location where the vessel, which is presumed to be still contaminated as a result of years of transporting spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, reportedly sank is only 60 kilometres off the large city of Murmansk.

Both the management of the Alexandrovsk yard and Murmansk authorities decline to comment on the report. Likewise, no information has yet been offered by officials in the Northern Fleet.

The Severka was built in Hungary in 1957 and was later commissioned by the Northern Fleet. In 1978, its service as a support vessel was discontinued and it was retrofitted for the transportation of spent nuclear fuel from Andreyeva Bay to Murmansk. Since 1993, the Severka has been out of commission.

After years of various operations involving transportation and transshipment of spent nuclear fuel, the Severka itself now falls into the category of radioactive waste. According to data available, the most severely contaminated sections were, however, removed from the vessel by 2007.

“Now that this vessel has been scheduled for decommissioning, no [spent nuclear fuel] could be there, not according to any of the existing rules,” said Bellona Murmansk head Andrei Zolotkov.

The same, he said, happens with nuclear submarines, where spent nuclear fuel is first unloaded before the submarines are sent for dismantlement.

“Because the Severka was used for a long time to transport [spent nuclear fuel] in old containers, it is quite possible that there remain radioactively contaminated areas and equipment – or solid radioactive waste – on board the vessel. One could not rule out small quantities of low-level liquid radioactive waste, either. If the vessel did indeed sink, this is evidence of irresponsibility and negligence on the part of specialists in charge of decommissioning the Severka,” Zolotkov concluded.

Bellona is watching the situation for further developments and will be posting updates as they become available.