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The Lepse Project

Publish date: October 25, 1996

Since 1992, the Bellona Foundation has been concerned about the matter of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste being stored on board the storage ship Lepse. The vessel is moored to a pier at the Atomflot nuclear icebreaker base just north of the Rosta township in Murmansk, and is formally owned by the Russian Ministry of Transportation. However, operational responsibility for the ship lies with the Murmansk Shipping Company (MSCO).

From Bellona’s perspective, an endeavour to secure the nuclear waste stored aboardLepse would be a good pilot project, both in addressing a seriousenvironmental problem existing within the city of Murmansk and in fostering auseful and productive cooperation between western and Russian experts in theeffort to solve problems of nuclear safety in the Barents region.

In 1994, Bellona was awarded NOK 500 000 from the Barents Cooperation inorder to work on this problem. Lepse is part of the NorwegianGovernment’s plan of action in implementing the points raised in Report No.34 (1993-94) to the Storting on Nuclear Activitiess and Chemical Weapons inAreas Adjacent to Our Northern Borders. An international advisory panelfor the project has also been established in which authorities from Norway,France, the European Union, the United States, and Russia are represented.

Background

Lepse is a 50 year old ship of about 270 feet in length. From 1962to 1981 the vessel was utilised as a service ship at the nuclear icebreakerbase. After that, she was then used as a storage ship for spent nuclear fuelgenerated by the reactors of the nuclear icebreakers. There are currently 624spent fuel assemblies being stored onboard Lepse under verydissatisfactory conditions. The fuel is partly stuck and is very difficult toremove. According to Russian calculations, unless remotely operated equipmentis used, the work to remove the spent nuclear fuel from Lepse willexpose 5000 workers to the maximum permissible doses of radiation.

Technical experts agree that this spent nuclear fuel must be removed from theship and processed in a satisfactory manner. Furthermore, the vessel should bedismantled in a way such that the parts of the ship that are radioactivelycontaminated can be properly stored.

Lepse has been a matter of discussion between Bellona and MSCO since1992. Early on, it was important to learn as much as possible about the natureof the materials stored and the actual condition of the storage ship. Ourfindings are presented in the Bellona report No. 1-1994 entitled Sources ofRadioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Counties issued onMarch1, 1994.

Prior to the release of the report, Bellona and MSCO had begun to discussvarious alternatives in solving the problem of what to do about Lepse.One proposal presented in careful detail by MSCO called for the transportationof Lepse to a repository at Novaya Zemlya. As an alternative, Bellonasuggested removing the fuel from Lepse using remotely controlledequipment and robots. While being more expensive, this approach woulddramatically reduce radiation exposure of the workers. However, due to thecosts entailed, MSCO was somewhat sceptical to Bellona’s suggestion.

In the autumn of 1994, MSCO and Bellona organized a conference on board thenuclear icebreaker Sibir attended by both the European Union’sCommissioner for the Environment Palleokrassas and the Northern Fleet Command.One of the main topics of discussion was the matter of safely securingLepse. The conference was later followed up by a group of experts fromEU including representatives from the European Union’s Fund for TechnicalAssistance to the CIS (TACIS) and DG XI. Subsequently, in 1995 the EuropeanUnion earmarked ECU 300 000 (approximately NOK 2 469 000) in funds for apreliminary study of the vessel. This study was financed by the EU’s TACISprogramme

The purpose of the feasability study was to determine how to remove and safelydispose of the spent nuclear fuel stored on board Lepse. Requests forbids were circulated around the European nuclear industry, and Bellonatranslated the bidding forms into Russian for MSCO. On May 23, 1995, Bellonaalso arranged a meeting between DG XI and MSCO in Oslo for the signing of thenecessary contracts between the European Union and MSCO. This marked theformal start of the international efforts to solve the Lepseproblem.

The bidding round was won by the British concern AEA Technology and theFrench company SGN. As soon as this became clear, Bellona initiated a meetingin England between representatives from MSCO, AEA Technology, SGN and Bellona.This meeting took place in August 1995 and was important both in getting theproject underway quickly and in clarifying a few points at an early stage.

Bellona has maintained contact with all of the involved parties throughout thefeasability study, both in England, France, Brussels and Murmansk.Furthermore, we have also lobbied extensively for the project on aninternational level .

In order to secure further financing for the project, it is crucial thatcurrent, up-to-date information is circulated within the pertinent politicalcircles. Over the course of 1996, Bellona also plans to inform and updateinstitutions such as the European Parliament, the Commission of the EuropeanUnion, and political institutions in the United States, Russia and Norway onthe progress of the project, stressing the importance of allocating thenecessary funds to complete the project.

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