Lepse crew moves to ‘village’

In the middle of the shabby and littered with metal scrap base for nuclear powered icebreakers, situated in the outskirts of Murmansk, the colourful housing containers look a bit out of place. Snowflakes are dashing in the rain, wind blowing from the Kola Fjord. Bellona representatives and Murmansk Shipping Company officials, commercial operator of nuclear icebreakers, are surrounded by reporters. And there is indeed a bit of news to report. An international project aimed at providing not just a bogus radiation safety, but safety for the people crewing onboard the nuclear storage ship Lepse is completed successfully. The project is nicknamed the Lepse Village.

The project was launched and funded by Bellona Foundation and implemented in co-operation with Murmansk Shipping Company, MSCo. The housing containers were delivered by Norwegian company UNITEAM A.S.

The remediation project for the Lepse itself has been stalled without a tax exemption and liability agreement. The agreement now named Multilateral Environmental Programs in Russia, or MNEPR, should be in place to resolve those issues not only for the Lepse project, but also for other international initiatives called to solve radiation safety problems in Russia.

The crew onboard the Lepse, who now is exposed to higher than permitted levels of radiation, cannot wait for politicians to make the MNEPR deal. From now on they live in the safe Lepse Village. From there they will continue to monitor the situation onboard the Lepse ensuring it does not capsize before the international projects takes off.

The Lepse Village is a rehearsal, a small step towards the solution of the whole problem.

Bellona-Murmansk, Bellona’s sister office in this part of Russia, has learned from its first hand experience how slow and hard it is to implement an international project. It took almost a year to obtain licence for tax exemption from the Russian Ministry of Economy. Then there was a whole extra pile of papers and licences required to make things moving. No wonder that the Lepse Village is one of the few international projects that have been implemented in Russia so far.

The MNEPR will be discussed during the next EU-Russia summit. To ensure the progress at the meeting EU environmental commissioner Wallström is in Moscow this week having meetings with high ranking Russian officials. The outcome of the summit will largely determine the fate of the Lepse remediation project along with other initiatives.

Lepse remediation project
From 1962 until 1981, Lepse was used as a service ship at the nuclear icebreaker base. Today, 639 spent fuel assemblies are stored on board the Lepse under highly unsatisfactory conditions. The fuel has become partially jammed in the holding tubes and is thus extremely difficult to remove.

Bellona has been discussing the Lepse project with MSCo since 1992. Russian calculations had shown that without access to remotely controlled equipment, the work to remove the spent nuclear fuel would subject 5,000 workers to the maximum permitted doses of radiation. Since this equipment was too expensive for MSCo, the company thought of the option to tow the vessel to Novaya Zemlya and dispose it there.

As a counterweight to these proposals, in the fall of 1994, Bellona presented an alternative approach of removing the spent fuel from the Lepse with the help of remote controlled technology. This solution would engender a significant reduction in the radiation doses to which workers would be exposed, but it would also be more costly. Indeed, in view of the greater cost, MSCo’s response to the plan was sceptical.

In the autumn of 1994, following an environmental conference organised by Bellona and MSCo, an expert panel was formed by the EU, consisting of representatives from EU’s TACIS-programme, DG XI and Norway. Upon the recommendation of the EU expert group, 18.5 million USD were appropriated for a technical solution. The technical feasibility study was financed by the TACIS programme.

The objective of the feasibility study was to investigate how spent nuclear fuel could safely be removed from Lepse and, once removed, how to manage it properly. Bids were invited for the feasibility study from the European nuclear industry. The British AEA Technology and French SGN won the tender. An international advisory group consisting of government representatives from Norway, France, the EU, the United States and Russia was established to monitor the work on the Lepse project. The project is now waiting for the Russian and EU signatures under the MNEPR agreement.