Lepse, a 270 feet ship, is 50 years old. From 1962 to 1981 the vessel serviced the nuclear icebreaker base in Murmansk. Since 1981 she has served as storage for spent nuclear fuel generated by the reactors of the nuclear icebreakers. There are currently 624 spent fuel assemblies stored under very dissatisfactory conditions onboard Lepse. Due to the fuel being partly stuck, and several rods broken into pieces, the material is very difficult to remove. The ship is state property, but the operational responsibility lies on the MSCo.
In 1994, MSCo and the Bellona Foundation organised a conference on board the nuclear icebreaker "Sibir", attended by the European Union’s Commissioner for the Environment, Palleokrassas. One of the main topics of discussion was the matter of safely securing Lepse. The conference was later followed up by a group of experts from EU including representatives from TACIS – the European Union’s Fund for Technical Assistance to the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and DG XI – the EU department responsible for the environment and nuclear safety.
At present an ongoing pilot project on Lepse, run by French SGN and British AEA Technology, suggests removing the damaged fuel rods with the help of robots, to be stored safely in containers. This approach differs vastly from the previous Russian plan to dispose of the whole boat at Novaya Zemlya.
At the last project meeting in Paris, the main topic was funding of the technical stage. The French government has promised 10 million French Francs, the Norwegian Government will allocate 20 million NOK, and the European Commission has sponsored the project with 1 million ECU. Altogether the sum available is 7,1 million ECU – approx. 60 percent of the estimated costs. In case the Russian government delivers an official application, the European Commission is prepared to allocate another 2 million ECU on the 1997 budget.
Current plans draw the following picture: The western companies will develop the technology and mantle the equipment, while the MSCo, guided by AEA Technology and SGN, will perform the actual removing of the damaged fuel from Lepse, and place it inside special transport containers. The following handling of the fuel will then be up to the Russian side. For the time being, Russian counterparts consider sending the fuel to the "Mayak" plant in Siberia for reprocessing, as the most suitable option.
Finally seeing the end of the red tape which has surrounded this project, it now seems likely that concrete works on a viable Lepse solution will start in no more than three years.
- Murmansk Shipping Company, Radiation Safety Department, February 1997.