The management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste generated by nuclear-powered submarines, as well as during the maintenance of laid-up submarines, has been the responsibility of the Russian Navy since the first nuclear submarine entered service in 1959.
In the early 1990s, the number of submarines retired from active service grew exponentially, becoming a burden for the Navys scarce budget. The Navy leadership expressed great displeasure with the situation, stressing that it was not in fact the direct responsibility of the Defence Ministry to manage and secure radioactive waste and retired nuclear submarines.
Transfer of Responsibility to Minatom
On May 28, 1998, the Russian government issued Decree No. 518 entitled Concerning Measures to Accelerate the Decommissioning of Nuclear Powered Submarines and Nuclear Powered Surface Vessels Withdrawn from Active Service and the Environmental Remediation of Radioactive Hazardous Sites of the Russian Navy. The decree appointed the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy (Minatom) to manage and co-ordinate efforts for decommissioning submarines.
The main function of Minatom is to co-ordinate the decommissioning process, to manage radioactive waste (radwaste) and spent nuclear fuel, to design and to implement the upgrades in infrastructure required to carry out the work. Most of the federal funding specifically earmarked for these issues is managed by Minatom as well.
Minatom is also responsible for developing a master plan to manage radwaste and spent nuclear fuel issues for the entire Russian nuclear complex. This master plan is being developed in compliance with the federal program Nuclear and Radiation Safety in the Russian Federation 2000 — 2006 as approved February 22, 2000 by governmental decree No. 149 on. The earlier version of this program, decree No. 1030, approved on October 23, 1995 with a time frame from 1996 to 2005 was abandoned. The naval radioactive waste management related issues now form a component of the master plan.
Minatom, however, does not assume full responsibility for the retired submarines. The transfer of a retired submarine from the Russian Navy to a shipyard for decommissioning is conducted through the Ministry of Property. After the submarine is defuelled and dismantled, the scrap metal is sold by the shipyard, while the reactor compartment, sometimes filled with radioactive waste, is transferred to a storage place which in the future is expected to fall under the authority of Minatom. In practise, it is still the navy that is responsible for the reactor compartments.
To fulfil the terms of Decree No. 518, Minatom, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Economy worked out a plan to transfer 125 retired nuclear submarines from the navy to the shipyards where decommissioning procedures were to be carried out. The transfer was set to take place from 1998 to 2000, but at present it lags behind schedule due to unresolved issues involving both the civilian crews at the shipyards who are charged with keeping the retired submarines in safe condition and the lack of proper safety regulations in place. The replacement of military crews with civilian workers may result in greater risks of submarines sinking right at the pier plants due to the shipyards lacking in the necessary experience needed to keep the vessels afloat. Furthermore, the shipyards have no rescue services, whereas the navy at least has the minimum number of ships and infrastructure required to tackle emergencies. The new schedule for the transfer has not yet been announced.
Minatom is also working on taking over storage sites for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste which once were under the auspices of the navy. Beginning from 1998, a regional branch of Minatom called SevRAO started working in Murmansk. SevRAO plans to take over the storage sites located in Andreeva Bay and Gremikha on the Kola Peninsula. A similar enterprise has been planned for the Pacific Fleet in the Far East.
Prior to Decree No. 518, which formally transferred co-ordinating responsibilities to Minatom, the nuclear ministry was already in charge of the administration of naval radioactive waste to a great degree. To implement the programs already existing at the time, Minatom granted the St Petersburg-based enterprise Nuclide the responsibility to manage navy-related projects in north-west Russia. Nuclide was established in the early 1990s and was primarily engaged in the trade of isotopes manufactured at Minatoms plants. The Russian Nuclear Regulatory, GAN, stated on various occasions that Minatom had no right to contract Nuclide to implement the projects, pointing to Nuclides lacking competence in this specific area. Consequently, with the creation of SevRAO at the Kola Peninsula which reports directly to Minatom, there is a conflict between those two organisations.
The Russian State Nuclear Regulatory Authority, Gosatomnadzor (GAN) was founded after the Chernobyl accident and is responsible for ensuring safety during usage of nuclear energy.
In compliance with the objectives set for it, GAN organises and implements state safety regulations over the usage of nuclear energy, nuclear materials, radioactive substances, and materials containing radioactive substances, both in civilian and military fields of application.
In 1993, through the utilisation of a presidential decree, the Ministry of Defence lobbied to deprive GAN of the right to regulate activities related to development, manufacturing, testing and usage of nuclear weapons and military nuclear power installations. The presidential decree of September 16, 1993, No. 636 Concerning the Partial Amendment of GAN’s Set of Rules, in effect handed over the regulatory function over these activities to a division of the Defence Ministry called the State Regulatory Authority for Nuclear and Radiation Safety. Despite the fact that the department was called ‘state’ it still had a ministerial function in its also being a part of the Defence Ministry. The formal grounds of the decree was the endeavour to avoid transparency of state military programs and to ensure the safeguarding of state secrets. The stated objective of the decree was merely an excuse in that all GAN inspectors working with military sites are former officers and retired admirals with the same degree of security clearance as the officers from the Ministry of Defence. Neither the Defence Ministry nor Minatom were open to allowing their sites to be inspected by an independent regulatory agency.
In other words, the 1993 presidential decree withdrew the military nuclear installations from a state regulatory authority independent of ministry regulation and control.
In 1995, the utilisation of nuclear energy during the development, testing, operation and decommissioning of nuclear weapons, as well as its usage in military nuclear power installations were all removed from the jurisdiction of the Law On Application of Nuclear Energy.
Thus, activities within a military application of nuclear energy are not only beyond independent state regulation in today’s Russia, but also beyond the law. The Law On Application of Nuclear Energy lays the foundation and principles to regulate conditions emerging from the application of nuclear energy, including the provisions directed towards the protection of human life, health, the natural environment. There are no other laws regulating this sphere in Russia.
In 1999, governmental decree No. 1007, pushed through by Minatom and the Defence Ministry, deprived GAN of the right to licence military nuclear-related activities, including the decommissioning of nuclear powered submarines. This responsibility was transferred to Minatom.
At present, the Russian government has prepared a bill, initiated by Minatom, which has been sent to the State Duma for a hearing. The bill calls for an amendment to the Law on Application of Nuclear Energy whereby all licensing responsibility is transferred to Minatom.
These limitations of GAN’s right to regulate the application of nuclear energy both in the military and civilian context are a matter of great concern. It is an issue, along with problems of nuclear liability that constitutes a serious roadblock to the implementation of international projects.
At present, GAN can still inspect shipyards, which are subjects to the Ministry of Economy, but lacks the authority to licence their nuclear related activities. It is still unclear whether GAN will be permitted access to earlier military nuclear storage sites which are now being gradually transferred to Minatom.