Norway pays Russia to scrap non-strategic submarines

Publish date: February 11, 2003

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Norway plans to contract the dismantlement of two Russian non-strategic submarines. Other countries will follow the example.

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry intends to foot a $12m-bill for decommissioning two Russian nuclear-powered non-strategic submarines. Norway, which has been engaged in nuclear clean-up projects in north-west Russia since the early 1990s, is launching this concrete project in the midst of discussions on the European-American level to step up efforts to secure nuclear materials in Russia.

Since the announcement of the G8 "Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction WMD" issued by the world’s eight leading industrial nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Russia Federation, the UK and the US — at the G8 Summit on June 27th 2002, the issue of general-purpose submarines, or non-strategic submarines, has become a topic of the top political agenda. The G8 Summit participants pledged $20bn to fund non-proliferation programmes in Russia — the initiative referred to earlier as "10 plus 10 over 10", meaning $10bn from the US and $10bn from other G8 counties over 10 years to secure Russia’s vast stockpiles of weapons and materials of mass destruction.

Senators Nunn and Lugar, the authors of the 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, later renamed Cooperative Threat Reduction programme, or CTR, have become the advocates of the programme to cover the non-strategic submarines. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), who now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is drafting a new legislation that will expand CTR beyond securing and decommissioning only those weapons in the former Soviet Union (FSU) deemed to be a threat to the United States.

Starting in 1992 and until 1997, CTR delivered equipment for scrapping ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to Zvezdochka in Severodvinsk, Nerpa at the Kola Peninsula and Zvezda shipyard in the Russian Far East. The equipment was used to dismantle five SSBNs. After 1997, CTR started to contract directly with the shipyards themselves and funded the dismantlement of submarines, as the scarce Russia’s budget did not allow the work to proceed. As of September 2002, CTR dismantled 24 SSBNs. The CTR’s so-called baseline goal is to eliminate a total of 48 SSBNs.

But the major environmental and non-proliferation threat was not posed by SSBNs.

Bellona’s calls for non-strategic submarine dismantlement finally heard
Ever since the United States started to assist Russia financially and technically in the decommissioning of its SSBNs, the Bellona Foundation has called on Norway and the European Union to pay for the dismantlement of non-strategic submarines. These are the oldest submarines, posing the highest radiation threat risks to Arctic waters. When Bellona first raised the question at the G7+1 Nuclear Safety Meeting in Moscow in 1996, the world leaders would not react to the idea. Today, seven years later, Bellona finally awaits the results of its work in Europe: Norway pays the decommissioning bill for two old submarines once operated by the Northern Fleet.

While the United States assists Russia with the decommissioning of strategic submarines because they could theoretically pose a security threat, Bellona argued that the old, rundown non-strategic submarines pose an environmental threat to Europe, especially fishing areas in the Arctic waters. In the aftermath of the September11th 2001 attacks these submarines also pose non-proliferation risks since they all still contain spent nuclear fuel in their reactors.

In 1999, Bellona arranged a well-attended working group meeting in Washington DC, where Russian Duma members, European Parliament members and members if the US Congress discussed these issues. Bellona stressed that the US, who paid for infrastructure used to cut up strategic submarines at the Zvezdochka and Nerpa shipyards in north-west Russia, could very well continue to work on the non-strategic submarines. The Head of the Russian Defence Ministry Nuclear Safety Department, Vice Admiral Nikolay Yurasov, agreed with Bellona and explained for the audience at the conference the enormous environmental threat these submarines posed.

Bellona has also been in dialogue on these issues with the last three prime ministers in Norway. In January this year, Norway started talks with Russia to cut up two non-strategic submarines.

Norway funds, Russia scraps
There are some 70 non-strategic submarines laid-up at Northern Fleet naval bases and yards, including 45 with spent nuclear fuel still in their reactors. The submarines Norway will pay for still have spent nuclear fuel onboard and have to be defuelled. The Victor class submarine will be decommissioned at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk, while the second unspecified non-strategic submarine will be cut up at the Nerpa shipyard located on the Kola Peninsula.

Norwegian Foreign Ministry officials hope to reach an agreement with Russia by this summer.

"This is a wise way to spend money. It is in Norway’s interests to be the first to pay for the decommissioning work. We want to show a good example and hope that other countries will follow," says Kim Traavik, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in Norway. Traavik says these submarines are a potential environmental threat and a threat to the market for fish from the Barents Sea.

Other countries should follow suit
In the wake of 2002 G8 Summit, the intellectual debate in the research community has focused on better ways to spend the $20bn to secure weapons and materials of mass destruction, although it has stumbled on the question of co-ordination of the whole initiative.

Senator Lugar, the most prominent advocate of the increased non-proliferation efforts, has also stressed the need for broader European involvement to ensure that the United States stays on track in terms of funding, as there are many in Congress who oppose major spending abroad and consider it as aid. Since 1992, the United States has spent around $7bn on CTR elimination projects and on improving security at weapons facilities in the former Soviet Union.

Norway has chosen not to wait until the creation of any multi-national co-ordinating body and will go ahead with its concrete steps to fulfil the pledges made by the international community.

Other countries have started to act unilaterally by working with Russia as well.

Japan announced its plans to move forward with non-strategic submarine dismantlement in the Pacific Fleet in the Russian Far East. Tokyo has released $168m in funding from the Japan-Russia Committee for Cooperation in Reducing Nuclear Weapons. The funds were previously suspended following disagreements between Moscow and Tokyo.

Germany, Canada Great Britain and Sweden are in active talks with Moscow on funding nuclear clean-up in north-west Russia. It is unknown whether any of these countries will fund the dismantlement of non-strategic submarines, but their plans suggest financing infrastructure for managing spent fuel, radioactive waste and reactor sections from scrapped submarines — projects which are also vitally important.

There is still a legal roadblock, however, hampering the efficient start of many of the projects and other countries involvement. That is the lack of an umbrella agreement on the Multilateral Nuclear Environment Programme in the Russian Federation, or MNEPR, which stipulates nuclear liability and taxation issues for the Western donors. But the agreement may be signed this year as promised by Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov at the Barents Region Prime Ministers’ Meeting in Kirkenes, north Norway, in January 2003. The Barents Region programme includes Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The next MNEPR agreement meeting is scheduled for late February in Moscow.

Table: Non-strategic submarines overview

Project/class Number built
Construction years In service
With fuel Without fuel
627/November 92/4 1955-1964 0/0 5/2 3/2
658/Hotel 6/2 1958-1964 0/0 23/1 4/1
659/Echo-I 0/5 1961-1963 0/0 0/54 0/0
675/Echo-II 15/14 1961-1966 0/0 6/10 9/4
671/Victor-I5 12/3 1963-1974 0/0 11/3 1/0
671RT/Victor-II 7/0 1971-1978 0/0 46/0 3/0
671RTM/Victor-III7 16/10 1976-1992 8/2 7/8 1/0
670A/Charlie-I 0/11 1970-1980 0/0 0/11 0/0
670M/Charlie-II 6/0 1972-1980 0/0 5/0 1/0
949/Oscar-I 2/0 1978-1981 0/0 2/0 0/0
949A/Oscar-II 68/5 1988-1997 5/5 0/0 0/0
705/Alfa9 7/0 1968-1981 0/0 3/0 4/0
945/Sierra 4/0 1982-1993 310/0 0/0 1/0
971/Akula 6/7 1986-2002 6/7 0/0 0/0
Total 96/61 22/14 45/40 27/711
Sub Total 15712 36 85 34
[1] Northern Fleet/Pacific Fleet.
[2] November class K-8 sank in 1960.
[3] Hotel class K-19 ("The widow maker") is transferred to Nerpa shipyard for defuelling and decommissioning in April 2002.
[4] Some of Echo-I class submarines in the PF may have been defuelled.
[5] 9 Victor-I submarines are laid up at Gremikha base in the NF. K-314 (PF) has reactors damaged after the 1985 Chazhma accident in the PF.
[6] 3 Victor-II submarines are laid up at Gremikha base.
[7] Victor-III are phasing out. There is an indication that all of them are taken out of service in the PF and only 5 remains in service in the NF.
[8] Oscar-II class K-141 (Kursk) sank in 2000.
[9] Alfa class submarines are equipped with one liquid metal cooled reactor each. K-64 reactor compartment is in Sayda Bay — storage site for defuelled submarine reactor compartments at the Kola Peninsula — but contains spent nuclear fuel.
[10] Two more Sierras may have been taken out of operation with only one still remaining in service.
[11] The number of the defuelled submarines in the PF may be slightly larger.
[12] The total number of the non-strategic submarines built excludes prototype submarines: November liquid metal (K-27), Papa, Mike (Komsomolets) as well as some redesigned SSBNs.