Photo: Bellona Archive
The wharf that the floating maintenance facility Lepse is anchored at belongs to the state-owned Atomflot – the nuclear icebreaker operator company that was recently transferred under the purview of the Russian nuclear state corporation Rosatom. Just beyond the port lies the treacherous ship channel of the Kola Bay. A couple of kilometres off the Atomflot facilities stretch the residential blocks of the large northern city of Murmansk.
The Lepse is still holding the high-level radioactive waste and damaged nuclear rods the vessel was used to unload from nuclear-powered icebreakers and submarines, including spent nuclear fuel (SNF) taken off the first Soviet nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin – now retrofitted to function as a museum and moored in Murmansk.
The first remediation project for the Lepse was initiated by Bellona as far back as 1994, when the European community started pledging funds to help safeguard the floating hazard. Sixteen years on, the project is still spinning the wheels.
Bellona believes there are no financial or technological factors in the current structure of the Lepse decommissioning project that could interfere with its practical realisation. Absent of such inhibiting factors, the only explanation remains that the impediments are of bureaucratic nature and stem from Rosatom’s administrative handling of the Lepse project.
Given the urgency and significance of the project, Bellona therefore extends a request to Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko asking to take all necessary measures to expedite the decommissioning process. Bellona’s open letter to Kiriyenko is available here (in Russian).
The Lepse’s troubles – basic facts
For many years now, the Lepse has remained the source of one of the most challenging issues of nuclear and radiation safety – it is, in effect, the most hazardous floating facility in Russia. Radioactivity levels of the SNF stored in its holds are currently at around 2.5·1016 becquerels (or 680,000 curies). Estimates show the fuel contains a total of 260 kilograms of Uranium-235, 156 kilograms of fission products and eight kilograms of the fissile radionuclide Plutonium-239. Gamma radiation both in the holds and in adjacent spaces is hundreds of thousands of times that of natural background radiation levels. The SNF holds store cases and caissons containing 639 spent fuel rods, including damaged SNF that was unloaded from the Lenin after accidents the icebreaker sustained in 1965 and 1967.
Despite all precautions in place, the risk of a navigation-related accident – the possibility of a collision with another vessel – still remains for the Lepse.
The necessity to decommission the Lepse was well determined as early as 1989 – at the time Russia was still part of the Soviet Union – as reflected in a decree by the Central Committee of the then-ruling Communist Party of the USSR. Various research and design organisations were instructed to find a technological solution to handle the Lepse and its dangerous cargo, but state funding dried up in 1994, amid the economic and social turmoil of the 1990s, when the newly independent Russia was making a strenuous transition toward a free market economy.
It was in that same year 1994 that international institutions and organisations came to support the struggling project, offering financial aid, and in 1995, the Lepse project was included in the European Commission’s agenda. Yet, because of an absence of bilateral and multilateral agreements that could unite Russia with donor nations and international financial institutions in a consolidated effort to tackle the Lepse hazard, the project remained effectively frozen for another eight years.
In 2003, after all the necessary agreements were signed, a concrete estimate was finally settled on for costs to be borne by international organisations involved in the project: They were expected to earmark over €12million to see the project to completion.
The following year, however, saw a number of disputes emerging between the French-based contractor SGN, which was charged with developing the project of unloading spent fuel rods from the Lepse’s holds, and the Murmansk Shipping Company, which was managing the project on the Russian side. The conflict brought its own share of delays into the endeavour.
In 2005, following a joint decision by Rosatom and Rosmorrechflot – the Federal Agency for Sea and River Transport, which oversees the management of Russia’s sea- and river-going fleet – an independent non-for-profit organisation called Aspekt-Konversiya was appointed as the contractor for the development of a comprehensive decommissioning project for the floating maintenance vessel Lepse.
In accordance with a TACIS contract signed between Aspekt-Konversiya and the European Commission, a package of project and organisational documentation was worked out between December 2005 and April 2007 for the comprehensive decommissioning of the Lepse. The documentation spells out the following project stages:
1. developing a working project;
2. preparing the vessel for towing to the shiprepairing yard Nerpa in Murmansk Region;
3. preparing special infrastructure at Nerpa to take delivery of the vessel;
4. designing and construction of an accessory building to adjoin the SNF storage facility (Building 5) on the territory of Atomflot;
5. towing the vessel to Nerpa and cradling it;
6. dismantling the hull, its elements and machinery;
7. unloading SNF from the holds;
8. transporting SNF-holding containers back to Atomflot;
9. placing containers with SNF for temporary storage in the accessory building of the SNF storage facility (Building 5) or transporting them to the Ural-based reprocessing plant Mayak;
10. reprocessing liquid and solid radioactive waste;
11. packing the remaining vessel elements into two block packages;
12. transporting the block packages for long-term storage in Sayda Bay, on the Kola Peninsula, and placing them in long-term storage.
At present, Aspekt-Konversiya is no longer the contractor on the Lepse project. The responsibility for project implementation lies with the state-owned Federal Centre for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (FC NRS), a Rosatom structure charged with overseeing the management of SNF and radioactive waste in Russia and the realisation of the Federal Target Programme “Nuclear and Radiation Safety in 2008 and for the Period through 2015.”
A grant implementing agreement was signed on June 5, 2008, between the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, acting as the administrator of the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP) donor funds, Rosatom, and FC NRS as the grant recipient. Contained within the NDEP fund is a so-called nuclear window for nuclear clean-up in Russia. NDEP expenditures, whose holdings are now in the hundreds of millions of Euros, are guided by its donor nations and institutions: Russia, Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, France, the UK and the European Commission.
The grant provides for the first stage of the project, which includes:
– developing working documentation for the decommissioning process,
– improving radiation conditions on the vessel,
– transporting the vessel to the shiprepairing yard Nerpa,
– preparing infrastructure at Nerpa for the unloading of SNF, including deliveries of specialised equipment.
A Project Management Team has been put together by FC NRS. As per the language of the implementing grant agreement, an international consultant is provided for this group to ensure all works meet international standards and are done in conformity with internationally accepted technologies. At the same time, all works under the project must also be in accord with the regulations and legislation in force in the Russian Federation.
The Project Management Team has prepared a tender to choose an International Consultant to work with the team and sent out letters to organisations that have previously stated their interest in the project, inviting them to submit their contract bid proposals. In preliminary plans, the selection of an International Consultant for the team was supposed to be completed by late June 2009, after all submitted bid proposals were considered.
Also according to these plans, in 2009, the Lepse was supposed to be towed to the shiprepairing yard Nerpa, located in Snezhnogorsk in Murmansk Region.
The Lepse decommissioning project is part of the Federal Target Program “Nuclear and Radiation Safety in the Russian Federation in 2008 and for the Period through 2015.” Funds are being allocated from the state budget for the implementation of this programme item.