Russian Navy contracts civilians to manage spent fuel

Publish date: August 31, 2000

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Civilian ship is collecting spent nuclear fuel from naval barge, plans to defuel nuclear powered submarine.

Nuclear fuel support vessel Imandra, property of Murmansk Shipping Company (MSCo), was dispatched to a naval shipyard at the Kola Peninsula to collect spent fuel from Northern Fleet’s barge and to defuel one Victor-II class general purpose submarine (SSN). This is the second time the civilian nuclear support ship is engaged in such operation, being a demonstration that the Navy is not capable of managing spent fuel itself. MSCo operates nuclear powered icebreakers in Murmansk.

Imandra is used by MSCo for storage of spent and fresh nuclear fuel as well as for refuelling of icebreakers. Storage capacity of the ship is 1530 spent fuel assemblies. The vessel is currently stationed at Polyarny shipyard and has recently emptied a part of the fuel storage tanks of the Northern Fleet’s PM-78 barge. The barge was commissioned back in 60-s and can hold 560 spent fuel assemblies. The barge is reportedly in a very bad state of repair.

Until October this year, Imandra is scheduled to defuel two reactors of Victor-II class submarine, K-371, which was commissioned back in 1974 and has being laid up the past ten years in Polyarny. Plans for another Victor-II class submarine have been under discussion as well, but no final decision is being reached so far.

Imandra defuelled first submarine, also Victor-II class, at Nerpa shipyard located at the Kola Peninsula in autumn 1999. The financial part of the operation was cloaked in secrecy, but MSCo’s officials said it was an experiment. The purpose was to train Imandra to defuel SSNs.

With another Victor-II earmarked for defuelling by Imandra, it can be suggested that the experiment is becoming a regular practise. The apparent goal of MSCo is to get experience in such operations and get them funded by the West in the future.

Until recently, the most part of retired submarines was defuelled and decommissioned with use of funds provided by American Co-operative Threat Reduction program, or CTR. CTR was designed to aid Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union to dispose of weapons of mass destruction. The naval component of CTR was focusing on decommissioning ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which were pulled out of service in consent with arms reduction agreements. Altogether, CTR planned to scrap 31 SSBNs. But the past couple of years, the Russian side started to criticise the approach of CTR, saying that older general purpose submarines (SSNs) were posing an immediate threat to the environment and must be taken care of first. CTR and other agencies were responsive to the critics and are currently working on a new program, which could fund decommissioning of SSNs as well. The trouble which the new program can face is the lack of proper infrastructure to defuel the laid up submarines. MSCo with its own fleet of nuclear support vessels can come for assistance.

The Russian Northern Fleet has 110 nuclear powered submarines taken out of service. 72 of them still have spent nuclear fuel onboard. The decommissioning of submarines have been going in a slow pace due to the lack of funding and functioning infrastructure.

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