Nuclear submarine emergency in floating dock during decommissioning

Publish date: August 7, 2002

Written by: Igor Kudrik

A first generation Echo-II class nuclear submarine fell on its portside in a floating dock during decommissioning at a naval shipyard at the Kola Peninsula.

An Echo-II class submarine — K-104 — which was in a floating dock PD-63 at the naval shipyard No. 10 in Polyarny — also named Shkval — at the Kola Peninsula fell on its portside on June 29th at around 5 a.m. Moscow time. The incident happened in a matter of seconds, but nobody was hurt. No increased levels of radiation were measured, according to official returns.

The incident was reported only on August 6th by Pravda.Ru — a website of the biggest newspaper once upon a time in the Soviet Union. This is the first major incident with the Russian submarine since the Kursk sank two years ago. But the military system is still holding back its ‘secrets’ even though such incident can threaten health and environment.

The submarine had spent nuclear fuel unloaded from its two reactors in spring 2002. The super structure of the boat was removed as well. This very fact ensured to a certain extent that the submarine did not damage the floating dock severely and it stayed afloat.

K-104 was commissioned in 1963 and stayed in active service until 1990. From 1976 and till 1981, the submarine was under upgrade and repairs at Polyarny shipyard. Echo-II class submarines are 115.4 meters long and have 5,760 tonnes displacement submerged.

The inquiry commission set up by the shipyard’s management believes the workers who were engaged in decommissioning of the submarine did not take into account the fact that the weight of the submarine increased during the 1976-1981 upgrade and selected wrong sized keel holders.

Officials at the shipyard claim that the floating dock itself is stable and there is no danger of sinking. The sideboards of the dock were patched up and new keel holders were installed. The officials at the shipyard say, however, that they will not take chances to dump the dock again in order to trim the submarine. Shipyard’s workers will continue to cut the submarine in its tilted position. The operation will be non-standard and will require additional efforts. Things will complicate further with the harsh weather coming up already in October.

Polyarny’s bad record
The shipyard in Polyarny has long tried to grab its share in the decommissioning work of the submarines without any particular big success. Reactor compartments from Polyarny and other shipyards at the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk county, are towed to Sayda Bay, located not so far from Polyarny. The commander of Sayda Bay, once interviewed by Bellona Web, said that the compartments and partially dismantled submarines that arrive from Polyarny are usually in poor condition and sometimes have gamma radiation emissions.

This year Yury Vishnevsky, head of Russia’s Nuclear Regulatory, or GAN, addressed the cabinet with an alarming letter describing a close to accident situation with fuel shipment from a submarine defuelled in Polyarny. Mr Vishnevsky wrote that the train with spent nuclear fuel, which arrived to Mayak reprocessing plant in the southern Ural in May 2001, carried casks with damaged spent nuclear fuel. Some parts of the spent nuclear fuel were missing and their location is unknown. This fact was not indicated in the documents sent with the train and was discovered during unloading of the fuel.

The damaged fuel originated from Echo-II class submarine K-192, which suffered an accident in 1989 and has been stationed in Polyarny until it was defuelled in 2000.

GAN inspectors were not in place when the damaged fuel was loaded into TUK-18 type casks destined for the Mayak plant. GAN was stripped of the authority to inspect military installations back in 1993. And the military nuclear safety inspection had no interest to complicate matters by informing Mayak about the damaged fuel arrival. The Mayak plant cannot reprocess damaged fuel and could bluntly refuse to accept it. The way-out was just to pretend that nobody noticed that the spent fuel was broken in parts, some of them missing, and get rid of the headache. The available storage sites are full in the Northern Fleet, whereas the solution to manage damaged fuel has not been found so far.

Polyarny shipyard — Shkval


As the first nuclear powered submarines were delivered to the Northern Fleet at the end of the 1950s, the yard was modified for the docking and repair of these vessels. Tenders, service ships and dry docks were acquired, including the floating dock PD-63. Around 1970, the yard was reorganised and partially expanded in order to handle the second generation of nuclear submarines.

Defuelling and refuelling of the submarines at Polyarny is carried out by the Navy’s Project 326M ship — an old barge. In 2000, the civilian nuclear support ship Imandra was working at Polyarny defuelling two Victor-II submarines.

The shipyard has also two covered floating docks, onshore and floating cranes. There are approx. 3,000 employees at the yard. The nearby town of Polyarny has just under 30,000 inhabitants.

The shipyard is capable of processing three to four nuclear submarines at the same time. However, it has not been actively involved in the decommissioning work. The shipyard defuelled and likely dismantled the November class submarine K-5 in 1996. In 1999, the Echo-II class submarine K-172 (K-192) was defuelled and dismantled at Shkval.

Some of the first generation submarines were also partly dismantled at Shkval and later towed to Sayda Bay for storage. Currently there are around four first generation submarines stationed at Shkval: two November class, one Hotel class, and one Echo-II class — the one now tilted in the floating dock.