The Lepse project

Publish date: July 2, 1997

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Docked at Atomflot in Murmansk city, retired service ship Lepse contains 640 spent nuclear fuel assemblies in bad condition. Protected by concrete to reduce radiation, the fuel's radioactivity has been estimated as high as 28,000 TBq (750,000 Ci). The ship's condition does not call for sailing, and the condition of the assemblies makes removal of the fuel extremely difficult. The Lepse obviously constitutes a severe hazard to the environment, and should be secured. To this end, Bellona initiated a process in 1992, which is now beginning to show progress. Here's the current status of the project.

With participants from Russia, USA and several European countries, and with EU funding, the Lepse project is a test case on how to assemble western and Russian expertise and financial means to solve environmental and nuclear safety problems in the North-west of Russia.

Floating technical base Lepse

The Lepse is a service vessel for the nuclear-powered ice-breaker fleet operated by Murmansk Shipping Company (MSCo ). The boat is 82.9 m long, 17.1 m in width; with a displacement of 5600 tons. The construction of Lepse was started in 1934 at Nikolaev shipbuilding yard, but suspended in 1936. In 1937 the boat was transferred to Kherson yard for completion. Instead of being completed, the boat was scuttled.

In 1945 the vessel was salvaged and stayed in Black Sea port Poti till 1958, when it was towed to Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg and rebuilt to service refuelling operations on nuclear-powered ice-breaker Lenin, a service it entered in 1961. The Lepse serviced Lenin till 1966.

Later, the storage compartments of Lepse were rebuilt to take the fuel from the new generation of ice-breakers, and from 1971 till 1981 the ship was used for defuelling operations at the new reactor installations of Lenin as well as Arktika and Sibir nuclear-powered ice-breakers. In 1981 Lepse stopped performance of defuelling operations, and in 1990 it was officially transferred to the rank of laid-up vessels. Lepse‘s main engine remaines operational.

Storage compartments for spent nuclear fuel

There are two storage tanks on-board the Lepse, both are 3.6 m in diameter and 3.4 m in height. Each tank has 366 sealed penals (67 mm in diameter) and 4 caissons (500 mm in diameter).

As a result of the reactor accident on-board the Lenin in 1966, 54 damaged fuel assemblies were put into the storage facility of Lepse. During its 30 years of operation Lepse has been receiving spent fuel from nuclear-powered ice-breakers and submarines, most of which was in unsatisfactory condition. Today, Lepse stores some 640 spent fuel assemblies. Approx. 30% of the assemblies are damaged and unretrivable by standard means. The activity of the spent nuclear fuel stored on Lepse is estimated as 28,000 TBq (750,000 Ci). 630 TBq is provided by transuranium elements.

The damaged fuel assemblies represent a radiation problem, and by the end of the 80’s, it was decided to pour cement in one section, to prevent radiation. The work was completed in 1993.

According to Russian calculations, unless remotely operated equipment is used, removal of the spent nuclear fuel from Lepse will expose 5000 workers to the maximum permissible doses of radiation.

Earlier plans to decommission

In 1988, the spent fuel onboard Lepse was officially defined as solid radioactive waste, which meant that the fuel was not to be reprocessed at Mayak in Siberia. Following plans considered the possibility of disposing of the Lepse in the permafrost on Novaya Zemlya. The storage facility with the spent fuel was to be filled with concrete, the superstructure removed and the boat towed to Novaya Zemlya and placed into a repository in the permafrost. At that time Novaya Zemlya was considered to be the most viable location for a long term nuclear and radioactive waste repository.

Bellona initiates the Lepse project

Lepse has been a matter of discussion between Bellona and MSCo since 1992. Early on, it was important to learn as much as possible about the materials stored and the condition of the storage ship. The findings are presented in Bellona Report No. 1-1994, "Sources of Radioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Counties", issued in March 1994.

Prior to the release of the report, Bellona and MSCo had begun to discuss various ways to solve the Lepse problem. As an alternative to the Novaya Zemlya plans, Bellona suggested removal of the fuel using remotely controlled equipment and robots. While being more expensive, this approach would dramatically reduce radiation exposure of the workers.

In the Autumn of 1994, MSCo and Bellona organised a conference on-board the nuclear icebreaker Sibir, attended by both the European Union’s Commissioner for the Environment Palleokrassas and senior officers of the Northern Fleet. 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 the European Union’s Fund for Technical Assistance to the CIS (TACIS) and DG XI. Subsequently, in 1995 TACIS earmarked ECU 300,000 for a preliminary study on how to remove and safely dispose of the spent nuclear fuel stored on board the vessel.

Requests for bids were circulated within the European nuclear industry, and Bellona translated the bidding forms into Russian for MSCo. On May 23, 1995, Bellona also arranged a meeting between DG XI and MSCo in Oslo for the signing of the necessary contracts between the European Union and MSCo. This marked the formal launch of the international efforts to solve the Lepse problem.

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

The feasibility study

The purpose of the TACIS-funded feasibility study was to determine how to remove and safely dispose of the spent nuclear fuel stored on board Lepse.

The study provided a concept for safe removal of the spent nuclear fuel from the Lepse. The budget estimation is 8.7 million Ecu for the first stage, which is fuel retrieval. The estimated duration from inception to retrieval of all the fuel from the ship is 3.5 years.

In June 1996, an Advisory Committee for the Lepse Project was established, comprising 18 different state bodies from the Russian Federation, the European Union, Norway, France and the United States. By now the advisory Committee has obtained commitment from main donors to fund the project.

In addition, initiated by the deputy minister of the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) of Russia, Mr.Egorov, the Lepse Project was included in the State Federal program for remediation of hazardous nuclear objects. As stated at the Tromsø press-conference in June this year by Victor Okhunov from Minatom, the Russian Federation has allocated around 1 million USD for the Lepse project in the 1997 budget.

Although the currently available funding covers only the first segment of the project – fuel retrieval, the Lepse remediation activity has been broken down into four segments:

  • Segment 1: Fuel retrieval operation
  • Segment 2: Fuel transportation and storage operations
  • Segment 3: Other Lepse ship radioactive waste management
  • Segment 4: Conversion of the ship to an environmentally safe condition.

The latter three segments were apparently put into the project description under pressure from the Russian counterpart, since, according to Russian safety regulations, the plan for remediation of an object should comprise all the necessary steps from the very beginning and up to the final stage of securing the object.

At present the first and most environmentally sensitive segment has been developed in details. The safety features and the technical feasibility was developed under the frame of the EU-funded study. Then the Advisory Committee members have funded the development of a "Project Manual", describing the detailed breakdown of the project into work packages, structuring the organisation, the management, the contractual and legal issues.

Mayak – or not

The other segments of the Lepse project are being addressed in parallel. The most sensitive segment here is "Fuel transportation and storage operations".

At the outset, the damaged fuel was to be sent to Mayak for reprocessing. In February 27. 1995, the leadership of MSCo and Mayak reprocessing plant signed Protocol no.5-8/952, stating that Mayak "has experience in reprocessing damaged fuel" and that "Mayak has principle possibility to reprocess damaged fuel in low volumes". But now a number of Russian experts claim that Mayak is unable to reprocess the damaged fuel. The situation is aggravated by the fact that operation of Mayak reprocessing plant is currently suspended for an uncertain period of time, pending replacement of shut down equipment. Consequently, stocks of the spent fuel in the storage facilities at Mayak are increasing, leaving minor hope that Mayak will be eager to complicate its current situation by accepting the damaged Lepse fuel. This point may slow the project down, as fuel transportation and storage planning is at a rather preliminary stage.

Taking this into consideration, there are plans to include AMEC (Artic Military Environmental Cooperation) into the project. This step is justified by the fact that the Lepse project lacks suitable containers for safe transport and interim storage of retrieved fuel elements. Currently Norway, Russia and the US are working to modify an existing Russian cask originally designed for transport and storage of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants using RBMK reactors, to make the container suitable for transport and storage of damaged and undamaged fuel from nuclear powered subs and ice-breakers. According to preliminary talks with MSCo, there is room at the nuclear powered ice-breaker base Atomflot for these casks. Thus, it may be possible to avoid shipment of the fuel to Mayak, instead storing it for up to 50 years onsite before a better solution is found.

Further steps

The main contractual documents have been prepared, and are expected to be signed by autumn 1997. According to Minatom official Victor Okhunov, his ministry is working with the Ministry of Finance and the Federal Customs Committee on reducing taxation of equipment to be delivered to Murmansk Shipping Company for the spent fuel retrieval. According to mr. Okhunov, a partial tax reduction is possible, but "it is very complicated".

The question of liability in case of an accident, has to be solved before the Western companies can deliver equipment to the project. A solution to this problem is being sought by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So far, there has been little progress on this problem.

Although both Western and Russian participants of the project admits that the progress is a bit too slow, the parties are optimistic when assessing its impact on further Russian-Western co-operative efforts to solve the environmental and nuclear safety problems in the North West of Russia.