French-Russian liability agreement signed

Lepse with radiation sign. (Photo: Bellona)
Service ship Lepse moored at nuclear powered icebreakers base Atomflot in Murmansk.
Thomas Nilsen

Publish date: June 21, 2000

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

France and Russia signed the long-awaited liability accord on Tuesday. The agreement will remove most barriers for the work on decommissioning of the nuclear waste storage vessel Lepse in Murmansk.

The liability agreement covers the supply of French equipment for the Russian nuclear industry, including the robotics to remove the damaged spent nuclear fuel stored onboard the run-down storage vessel, Lepse, in the Russian port of Murmansk. Lack of the agreement has postponed the Lepse project that was considered to be one of the major steps in nuclear cleanup work with international assistance.

The Bellona Foundation and Murmansk Shipping Company initiated the Lepse project back in 1994. In October 1994, the EU-Commissioner on Environment visited Lepse in Murmansk together with Bellona and promised on the spot that EU would provide financial help to deal with the highly radioactive spent fuel onboard the vessel. Later both Norway and France agreed to give financial aid to the project. The unloading of the spent fuel and placing it into casks for onshore storage at the nuclear powered icebreaker base Atomflot in Murmansk is estimated to cost around $10 million.

French nuclear engineering company SGN was the one that won the EU tender to develop the robotics for removing the spent fuel from Lepse, but until today there has been little progress in the actual work due to the lack of a liability agreement between France and Russia. The agreement was signed in Paris by Russia’s Minister of Nuclear Energy, Yevgeny Adamov, and French Industry Minister, Christian Pierret.

The agreement is said to clarify all questions related to which parties are to be held responsible for malfunctions of equipment supplied to Russian nuclear objects by French companies.

Lepse holds around 640 spent fuel assemblies transferred from the reactors on the nuclear powered icebreaker Lenin that suffered an accident in 1966. Due to the lack of cooling in the Lenin reactors, some of the fuel assemblies enlarged and therefor did not fit into the storage channels onboard Lepse. The workers used sledgehammers to push the fuel assemblies into the channels and as a result, they where partly destroyed. The radiation from the storage section on Lepse is today far beyond acceptable norms. The estimated amount of radioactivity in the fuel assemblies is 28.000 TBq (750.000 Curies).

The robotics to be developed by SGN will make it possible to remove the spent fuel without exposing the workers to high doses of radioactivity. blabla