The Co-operative Threat Reduction program has funded four fuel shipments to the Mayak reprocessing plant this year. The fuel from a total of six submarines was shipped to Siberia from the Kola Peninsula and the Russian Far East. The effort required a waiver from U.S. policy which prohibits that U.S. funds be spent on support of reprocessing.
A U.S. Congress effort to secure former Soviet weapons of mass destruction named Co-operative Threat Reduction program, or CTR, developed a specific program for dismantling ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) required under the START- 1 arms reduction treaty in 1992.
At the first stage, CTR supplied Russian shipyards with dismantling equipment to help create the infrastructure that scrapping nuclear submarines requires. In 1997-1998, CTR started to fund the decommissioning work itself, by providing funds to pay workers’ salaries. At present, CTR’ objective is the dismantlement of a total of 31 SSBNs: one Yankee, 26 Deltas, and 5 Typhoons.
A few years after SSBN dismentalment started, CTR realised that Russia’s infrastructure did not have the capacity to ship fuel from scrapped submarines to the Mayak plant. Russia has adopted what is known as a "closed cycle" for the removal of spent fuel from submarines equipped with PWR reactors and from nuclear-powered civilian vessels. The fuel is sent to the Mayak plant for reprocessing. Russia’s has five TK-VG-18-type rail cars, which can ship two-and-a-half to three reactor cores at a time. The storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel at the Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet are run down and full.
The cost per fuel shipment was around $1 million to $1.5 million. But with the devaluation of the ruble after the 1998 economic crisis, the dollar-denominated service got cheaper. A shipment can now be reprocessed for about $500,000.
Non-reprocessing policy with exceptions
In August 1998, CTR’s executives briefed U.S. policy makers that for dismantlement of submarines to continue, the U.S. side has to agree to fund shipment of fuel for reprocessing at Mayak. Spent nuclear fuel could not be stored safely and this created a bottleneck for dismantlement that threatened to halt work. Around mid-December 1998, the first official cables were sent to Russia announcing that a waiver for the non-reprocessing policy would be granted. Negotiators said the United States would consider supporting reprocessing of fuel from up to 15 strategic submarines.
The first train with submarine spent fuel left Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk County, in April this year. A second shipment was performed from Atomflot base in Murmansk in May. A third train arrived at Severodvinsk on 25 June and left for Mayak a week later. During the first half of 1999, the train was in the Pacific Fleet as well to collect fuel from dismantled submarines there. Finally the train arrived in Murmansk again in late July, this time reportedly to load fuel from operations of nuclear-powered icebreakers.
Each train, which now consists of five railcars, can carry a maximum 735 fuel assemblies, or around three reactor cores. So, all in all, around 12 reactor cores (six submarines) were sent to the Mayak plant.
Dry storage at Mayak
The U.S. permission to reprocess spent fuel was limited to 15 strategic submarines and conditioned on co-operation on the development and licensing of a dry storage facility for the remaining 15 boats. CTR plans decommission 31 submarines, but one was already defulled by the Russian side. Moreover, the number of submarines to be decommissioned with CTR funds might increase in the future with inclusion of general-purpose submarines. An assessment whether the United States should get involved in general-purpose submarine dismantlement is due out October 1 this year.
Under Lake Karachay, at a depth of 100 metres, a pocket containing some 5 million cubic metres of radioactive liquid salts has been created. Moving at a speed of 80 metres per year towards the confluence of the River Irtysh and its tributary Techa, the pocket is currently located 1.5 to 2 kilometres from an impending catastrophe. In case it eventually reaches the Techa, and consequently the Irtysh, vast areas of Western Siberia and the Arctic Ocean will be contaminated. So far, no solution has been proposed to prevent the disaster.