Decommissioning of the technical support vessel Lepse (Murmansk region)

Shown here is a TK-VG-18 railroad car for the transportation of nuclear fuel.
Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Publish date: April 4, 2005

Written by: Sergey Zhavoronkin

The technical support vessel Lepse presents the biggest nuclear and radiation risk of all retired nuclear service ships in Russia.

The technical support vessel Lepse presents the biggest nuclear and radiation risk of all retired nuclear service ships in Russia. In 1988, the vessel was taken out of service, and, in 1990, it was assigned the category of "laid-up vessel." The Lepse’s SNF storage holds (in casks and caissons) 639 spent fuel assemblies (SFAs), and a significant portion of them is severely damaged. Extraction of the SFAs from storage holds would present a radiation risk and be a complex technical operation, the framework for which has still not been worked out. The ship is presently laid-up at Atomflot, which carries out service on nuclear powered icebreakers. Atomflot is located in the Kola Bay, two kilometres from the boarder of Murmansk city, which has population of 400,000. The ship is operated by joint stock company Murmansk Shipping Company (MSCo).

The necessity of decommissioning the Lepse was determined by Decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union No. 1095-296 signed September 10th 1989. The work was financed by the MSCo, but was stopped in 1994 when funding dried up.

In 1994, international organizations stepped into the Lepse project. In 1995, the Lepse problem was included in the plans of the European Commission. But due to the lack of bilateral and multilateral agreements among donor countries and international financial institutions, the project showed no visible progress until 2003.

In 2003, after all agreements had been signed, westerns donors pledged EUR 13m for defuelling of the Lepse’s waste storage holds. The price tag for decommissioning the whole ship will be over $30m, according to Russian estimates.

In 2004, an array of disagreements surfaced between the French company SGN, which is responsible for the technical aspect of the project on the western side, and the MSCo, which manages the project from the Russian side.

The Russian side claims that SGN insisted on development of a so-called baseline report—a document that does not meet the requirements of the Russian regulatory rules—and ignored the requests from Russian nuclear authorities to work up documents needed to approve the project in Russia.

Moreover, the baseline report takes into account only one aspect of the Lepse’s remediation—defuelling the ship’s storage holds. SGN has still not provided the baseline report even though it was scheduled for delivery in late 2004.

Western donors, on the other hand, insist on the necessity of developing a baseline report, as this document is required so that decision on earmarking funds for the Lepse project can be made. They also insist on developing a baseline report for a remediation variant that does not take into account the extraction of spent nuclear fuel from Lepse’s storage holds. The Russian side was asked to develop such report, but such a report has never been done.

The Lepse project is facing impediments. The misunderstanding between SGN and Murmansk Shipping Company has reached critical levels.

Bellona believes that, at this stage, the main wrench in the works of the Lepse project is its management. Technology and decommissioning methods should be developed in Russia in accordance with Russian regulations, with the participation of western experts and application, if necessary, of western technologies. Instead of a baseline report, western experts should evaluate Russian-produced project documentation similar to the baseline report. Such western expert evaluation should be sufficient basis for the western donors to earmarking funds for the project. The financial management of the project should be carried out by donors.

Bellona also believes that it is necessary to evaluate at least two variants of the Lepse’s remediation—one that weighs the option of defuelling the ship and one that does not—before the project itself is developed. Both variants should pass both state and public environmental assessments.


6. Conclusion
As of today the required funding is in place. There is a Steering Committee, comprised of donor country representatives. Russia has concluded the necessary agreements with all of the participants of the international Lepse project. The Russian side has determined those who would participate in developing the project and the stages of developing the project and of the implementation and cost of works (approximately) for decommissioning the Lepse. The matter of principle regarding the management of SNF removed from the Lepse’s storage hold at the Mayak Nuclear Complex has been resolved, in the case that the fuel will be extracted from Lepse.

Nevertheless, the project is being blocked. The situation is getting critical, as the international funds allotted for the project should be put into use by 2005.

Bellona believes there is a great need for the management reform for the project.

    1. The project itself should be carefully designed, and consider at least two variants of implementation: extraction of the fuel from Lepse’s hold, and without extraction. There should be environmental impact studies in place and risk assessment for selecting one of the variants and the place for implementation of the project.

    2. The management of the project should be reformed. It is now clear that the baseline report is not the document that allows full evaluation of environmental risks. That is why the most efficient and cost effective way to do it would be to develop the project using Russian documentation formats similar to the baseline report and evaluate them accordingly. The Russian documentation can in turn be evaluated by the western experts. Such evaluation could be enough for the donors to take the decision about funding one of the variants.

    3. It is necessary to conduct public environmental evaluation of the project (or of independent segments) in accordance with Article 20 of the Federal Law "On expert opinions in ecological matters."

    4. It is necessary to change partner for the Murmansk Shipping Company. The disagreements between the Murmansk Shipping Company and SGN have reached the critical level, which does not allow further productive cooperation between these two companies.