Norway and UK to share £3.9 million burden of dismantling Russian November class sub

Publish date: February 26, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

Norway and the United Kingdom will again combine funding and expertise to dismantle an aging Russian nuclear submarine under the aegis of the Global Threat Reduction Plan, Britain’s Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks announced in a statement Wednesday.

The cooperation represents the first time the two countries teamed on a nuclear dismantlement project in Russia since the somewhat acrimonious dissolution of Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) of which the UK, Norway, the United States and Russia.

Both Norway and the US, which started AMEC, backed out to assume advisory roles after the UK, as AMEC’s new member, insisted on using commercial nuclear decommissioning firms for what had previously been government to government projects.

Though diplomats on both side of the £3.9 million ($7.6 million) agreement to dismantle the decommissioned November Class submarine No 291, does not imply a reinvigoration of AMEC, Bellona greeted the new project, which will fall under the Global Threat Reduction Programme, as an important step forward after Norway’s active participation in AMEC was stalled.

“We are glad to see the countries could put their policy differences aside and get down to the ultimately more important task of eliminating the Soviet nuclear legacy,” said Bellona’s nuclear physicist Nils Boehmer.

"The nuclear legacy of the former Soviet Union still presents a serious risk. A nuclear accident in Russia or a terrorist incident using radioactive material in a dirty bomb would have global implications,” said Wicks in his statement.

"International cooperation is vital to ensure these threats are addressed within an acceptable timescale and it is in our interest to help Russia dispose of its nuclear legacy and ensure risks are managed to a standard expected in the UK and Norway."

Under the UK-Norwegian agreement, which was signed Monday at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in London, the No291 submarine will first be de-fueled and then towed to the Nerpa Shipyard for dismantling.

Wicks’ statement did not include any information on further disposition plans for the offloaded fuel, though it is likely to be sent to Russia’s Mayak reprocessing facility, as the majority of spent Russian nuclear submarine fuel is.

New project reflects lessons learned
That the vessel will be de-fueled before towing is a nod to Norwegian conditions for work on Soviet-era subs enacted after the sinking of the derelict K-159, another November class sub, during towing to dismantlement in August 2003. The accident killed all 10 crew members aboard for the transport operation and sent 800 kilograms of reactor fuel to the ocean floor.

Though the K-159 was not an internationally funded project, it nonetheless highlighted the shoddy towing practices used by nations contributing to the cause of dismantling Russian nuclear subs – most notably Norway. When Bellona exposed that Norway had transported two submarines – also loaded with nuclear fuel – to dismantlement in the same fashion as those that led to the sinking of the K-159, Norway’s government pledged to use safe methods in the future.

Indeed, Norway’s next project with decommissioned subs in Russia, which was the last project Oslo participated in under AMEC, made use of a Dutch built heavy cargo ship, which lifted the decommissioned submarine out of the water and on to deck for transport.

Under the new UK-Norway project, the No291 sub will be dismantled to a single compartment and sent to Saida Bay for interim on land storage. The UK’s NUKEM corporation will be supplying project management and technical advice for the endeavor.

The UK- AMEC division
It was in fact the UK’s insistence on including NUKEM in future AMEC activities that caused the United States to loudly leave the programme, to be followed quietly by Norway. The US complained that the inclusion of a commercial entity would jeopardise the fragile military to military contact that was the foundation of the AMEC project and a trust that had been built up since 1994.

For it’s part the UK – which had only recently joined AMEC – criticized the US and Norwegian positions, saying that relying on governmental contact was hindering swift decision-making and causing a backload of projects.

More suitable to UK-Norwegian cooperation, said diplomats interviewed on Thursday, is the framework of the Global Nuclear Threat Reduction Programme.

This programme is the UK’s interface with the Global partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction Programme – the so-called “ten plus ten plus ten” programme agreed to by the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialised nations at the 2002 G-8 summit in Kananaskis, Canada.

The programme stipulates that the G-8’s member states will contribute $20 million over the next 10 years toward addressing Russia’s nuclear legacy.

UK’s Global Threat Reduction progress

Through the Global Threat Reduction Programme, the UK has successfully dismantled three nuclear powered submarines: two Oscar class submarines at the Zvezdochka Shipyard, and a Victor class submarine at the Nerpa Shipyard, including documentation and infrastructure work at both shipyards.

The new UK-Norwegian project is the fourth submarine dismantling project the UK has undertaken in Russia.

Over the past year, according to Britain’s Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the UK Global Threat Reduction Programme has made significant inroads in the management of Russian stockpiles of nuclear fuel from decommissioned submarines in Northwest Russia.