Far East Decommissioning Conference Cries for Cash

Publish date: September 18, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

The chief official of the Russian Atomic Ministry, Minatom’s, department of ecology and decommissioning told an international conference on nuclear security that in this Pacific port town that corrosion was eating away at the hulls of 39 ships that store spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, from Russia’s Pacific Fleet submarines.

That official, Viktor Akhunov, said that the facilities used to store the material are inadequate and that security around the facilities is alarmingly lax.

He declined to say where the ships were based or how much fuel they contained, but said the corrosion on their hulls poses “the greatest danger,” but various international observers attending the conference have indicated the ships are located throughout the Primorye region, from near Vladivostok, to the Kamchatka Peninsula — where some reportedly lay beached.

Akhunov said two such ships had been decommissioned over the past two years.

The ecology and decommissioning chief also said security is lacking and storage facilities “dilapidated” at the Russian military bases around the country that store spent nuclear fuel from 170 submarines. Four of those bases are located in the Russian Far East, he said, though refused to be more specific about the number of vessels located in the Far East. .

Of the 190 Russian submarines that have been taken out of service Russia-wide since the end of the 1980s, only 71 have been secured to some extent, meaning their nuclear fuel had been removed and some of them were scrapped, Akhunov said. Other subs remain docked off Russia’s Pacific coast and in the Arctic Ocean, awaiting full decommissioning.

In the Pacific Fleet alone, 42 out-of service submarines that still have their spent nuclear fuel on board still remain precariously afloat.

It was ecologists and ecology groups like Alexei Yablokov and Bellona who first raised the alarm in 1995 about these submarines, bobbing at dockside, still loaded with their nuclear fuel — which is a specifically Russian method for storing submarine SNF. At that time, revelations of such information brought allegations of treason, particularly against Bellona’s Aleksandr Nikitin, who was finally acquitted of these charges in December 1999.

But in recent months, Minatom has declared that the problem of these submarines is one of its main priorities.

According to Akhunov, the current Russian budget assigns the equivalent of $70 million to improve nuclear safety in the country — the most funding allotted any single environmental project since the break-up of the Soviet Union. But he and other experts at the conference said the sum was still insufficient to meet the decommissioning program’s basic needs. He said Russia plans to decommission 131 submarines by 2010 — an effort that will cost $3.9 billion, with a start up cost of $60 million this year alone.

Where that money will come from, said Eduard Avdonin, Director of Minatom’s International Center for Environmental Safety, no one yet knows.

Two of these waiting submarines have had accidents in their reactors, and salvaging them could be dangerous, said Vladimir Shishkin, chief designer of the Minatom’s Institute for Energy Equipment Research and Design, who also spoke at the Vladivostok conference.

The government plans to build a special shelter to store the submarines until the fission capability in their nuclear reactors ends in about 300 years, he said.

Akhunov said several projects to improve the storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel are dogged by a lack of funding. He said his ministry was trying to drum up $7 million in foreign funding to upgrade a railroad link that would connect the Russian Far East fuel storage site at Zvezda shipyard — where fuel assemblies removed from nuclear submarines are taken to be shipped to a reprocessing facility.

Avdonin added that Russia’s Northern Fleet has been dealing with the same problems for many years. The problem, he said, was that an infrastructure, not to mention a system of international attention and donors, was in place for addressing the Northern Fleets woes.

According to Avdonin, the railroad track in need of repair — that was mentioned by Akhunov — is a mere 27 kilometers long.

At the conference, Akhunov said a new construction project — a nuclear fuel storage base at Razboinik Bay near Vladivostok — lacks sufficient funds. The base would store fuel from 19 submarines in the bay, which are currently being kept afloat with pontoons.

The Razboinik Bay project gained urgency after two decommissioned submarines sank off the north-eastern Kamchatka Peninsula in 1997 and 1999, said Defence Ministry’s Vice Admiral Nikolai Yurasov, who oversees nuclear safety in the Russian Navy. The submarines were quickly raised and caused no environmental damage, he said.