Naval Nuclear Waste Management in Northwest Russia

Publish date: October 1, 1998

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

On September 18 this autumn, a 19-year-old sailor shot eight of his fellow servicemen and threatened to blow up the nuclear-powered submarine where he had barricaded himself in the torpedo-compartment. The drama on board the Akula class attack submarine, the first nuclear object ever in history to be hijacked, ended after 23 hours. When special anti-terrorist forces prepared for an assault, the teenage sailor shot himself to death. This incident was just another result of the critical social situation among the sailors serving onboard nuclear-powered submarines in the Russian Northern Fleet. Especially now, with the Russian economy faltering, the impact of social problems on nuclear safety within the fleet is of great concern. The soldiers at the nuclear submarine bases at the Kola Peninsula have been serving without salary since this spring. How can a person be focused on his job and dedicated to the safety of the reactor he is in charge of, when his children at home are going hungry? Is it possible for the Russian Government to provide financial resources to secure nuclear waste in the remote areas in the far North, when even some high-ranking admirals claims they cannot guarantee a reliable early warning system for Russia’s strategic nuclear forces? And will it be possible for the international community to provide financial and technical assistance to secure nuclear waste in Russia when Western experts are not allowed to inspect the "secret" nuclear waste storage facilities? These are only some of the questions that need to be answered before efforts to address the environmental crisis in Northwest Russia can be undertaken.

Destructive Remnants of the Cold War
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of Russia into a more open society have revealed a wide range of environmental hazards both to Russia itself and to neighbouring countries. Since 1989, the Bellona Foundation has been involved in environmental questions concerning northwestern Russia and the Arctic. It is essential to obtain the fullest possible overview of potential sources of radioactive contamination in the Russian Arctic. With our reports about civilian and military sources of radioactive contamination in the region, we have compiled information and statistical data available from open sources. By presenting this information, we hope to contribute to increased insight and consequently to help realize necessary national and international measures to improve nuclear safety, and secure radioactive waste and the large amount of naval spent nuclear fuel. These are difficult and costly tasks. Therefore, it has been necessary for Bellona to present information on a factual basis in order to assist in the development of a proper risk assessment, problem solving and prioritizing. It is our view that such work is best carried out through international cooperation, with particular emphasis placed on a strengthening of Russian treatment technology for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.

Arms control and disarmament agreements are core elements of the new security relationships between Russia and all countries of Europe and North America, helping to replace suspicion with mutual understanding and adding significantly to our common security. This cannot be achieved overnight. It is, however, a reasonably safe assumption that as a consequence of the START Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty agreements, the environmental challenges must be an important part of the implementation work in nuclear disarmament. The terms of the START-II disarmament treaty require that the missile sections of the strategic nuclear submarines must be removed before a submarine can be considered decommissioned. This requirement has resulted in a situation where a number of Yankee- and Delta-class submarines at the naval shipyards in Severodvinsk today remain afloat in two separate pieces. The reactor compartment containing two reactors with their spent nuclear fuel assemblies remains inside the submarines hull, and sea water is penetrating through the crack between the two parts, thereby hastening the onset of corrosion and impairing the submarine’s ability to stay afloat. This happens because neither the shipyards nor the navy has the financial and technical means to scrap the entire submarine and secure the spent fuel elements and the radioactive waste. The nuclear history of the Russian Arctic has not ended with the Cold War. The challenge of today and tomorrow is therefore not only connected with arms reduction itself, but also to ensure the management of the tail end of the process, the environmental aspect of nuclear arms decommissioning. Contamination of humans and the environment from radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel must not become a "warm" heritage from the Cold War. This autumn is especially hot, since there is no funding whatsoever in the Russian defence budget for handling radiation safety problems. Especially not in the remote areas of Kola Peninsula, 1,200 miles north of the political centre Moscow.

Upcoming "social explosion"
The naval crew at the submarine bases and the employees at naval repair yards in Murmansk and Archangels region are facing especially harsh times this winter. As Russia has sunk deeper into economic chaos, there have been glimpses of disorder and despair among naval crews at the remote, poorly supplied, closed naval bases where the nuclear submarine of the Northern Fleet is situated. Since the economical chaos started in August, the naval bases have not received a single ruble. The first reports about lack of food come in September. The winter period last until late May next year. Public protests highlight the government’s failure to pay the soldiers, and the fair for upcoming "social explosion" is raising. Most of the debts are back salaries. Funding of the Russian Navy has been cut in half this year compared to 1997. In 1996 the Navy got only 30 percent of the allocated budget. This force severe cutbacks on the operation and maintenance of the nuclear fleet. On several occasions this year naval officers has refused to go to sea on patrol duty. There have been several instances over the past four years where the Northern Fleet was obliged to recruit officers from various neighbouring bases in order to assemble a crew for a nuclear submarine due to go out on patrol. At times, even ballistic missile submarines have been sent out on patrol without the full complement of officers.

Now, labour union leaders at the Northern Fleets shipyards, warn of strikes and other more drastic actions. In June this year, workers at the Polyarny naval yard on the Kola Peninsula went on a hunger strike. The last day of salaries was in December last year. The desperate workers plan to blockade a nuclear submarine undergoing repairs at the yard – a strategy that has proved successful on several occasions. In December 1995, the workers ran a blockade to prevent a recently repaired nuclear submarine from departing until back pay had been received. The Northern Fleet responded by threatening to cut the Polyarny electrical grid serving the worker’s homes. The blockade was immediately cancelled since the temperature was below minus 30 degrees Celsius, and there were no other possibilities to heat the houses. The same situation can be found at the other military shipyards in the region. The biggest Russian nuclear submarine builder, Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, suspended all operations and dismissed all employees in September. The workers were sent on compulsory vacation. The decision was taken by shipyard management in fear of social unrest, because only five percent of salaries was paid since this spring, and the workers said they started to become hungry. All operations was suspended, electricity, telephone communication and water supply systems was disconnected. The general director of Sevmash went to Moscow trying to get previously allotted funding from the Finance and Defence ministries. In Moscow he found no Government to meet with.

On February 20 this year, the Russian State Duma made amendments to the Law on Special Economic Status for the Closed naval cities of there is six of at Kola. These amendments make these cities once again totally dependent on the scarce federal budget funding. The Law on the so-called Closed Administrative Units was adopted in 1992. Those cities received a number of financial privileges. First of all, the taxes collected inside such a city would remain in the local treasury. Secondly, the Law allowed favourable taxation on investments within the boundaries of these cities. The new amendments of February take away all these privileges, and there is no way the local administrations can start new business, in order to earn money by themselves.

Bellona expresses deeper concerns about the social-economical impacts on the nuclear safety in the region this winter, than pure technical construction mistakes, which can lead to a major nuclear accident. But, aside from human stress, there are signs of continuing deterioration in the strategical submarines in the Northern Fleet. All strategic missile submarines (SSNBs) were withdrawn from patrol for three months after a May incident with one of the fleets Delta-I class submarines. The Delta-1 submarine suffered a leak in one of the fuel-tanks for the SS-N-8 missiles onboard. Corrosion and weakening of the weapons is heightening the risk of an explosion. This was what happened onboard the Yankee-class submarine that sank off American shores in 1986.

History and present challenges
The Russian Northern Fleet operates submarine reactors without adequate facilities for the disposal of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. Submarine reactors have been dumped in the Kara Sea east of the island Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic. More than 11,000 m3 of solid radioactive waste and large amounts of low-level liquid radioactive waste have also been dumped in the Barents- and Kara Seas. The dumping is history. Of even more importance are laid-up submarines and the aging land-based storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste at the different naval bases and shipyards in the region.

Laid-up Nuclear Submarines
More than 130 nuclear powered submarines have been taken out of active service from the Russian Navy and are laid up or partly dismantled. More than 90 of these belong to the Northern Fleet. They are berthed at quays at the naval bases and shipyards in Gremikha, Severodvinsk, Vidyaevo, Polyarny, Sevmorput, Gadzhievo and Zapadnaya Litsa. The most urgent problem is connected to the first generation submarines of the November-, Hotel- and Echo-classes. These submarines were taken out of active service in the early 1980s. Fifteen to 20 years later, nobody knows the condition of the spent nuclear fuel in their reactors. Most of these vessels are run down and some of the fuel assemblies on board are so badly damaged that refuelling is impossible with the available equipment. There is a great shortage of qualified technical facilities coupled with a lack of sufficient funding to carry out the work.

The steadily worsening technical condition of the laid-up nuclear submarines has made a number of temporary safety measures necessary. These include attempts to keep the vessels afloat through constantly pumping compressed air into the hulls, welding of bottom seacocks and periodic docking. These measures minimize the risk of spontaneous chain reactions in the nuclear fuel through accidental contact with seawater. Nevertheless, there is a significant risk of leaks of radioactivity should the submarine sink. The reactors of vessels that have not been defueled must be cooled periodically by circulating coolant through the primary circuit. This is achieved by supplying electrical current from a land-based source or from the vessel’s own diesel generators or batteries. If all of these power sources should fail in the wintertime, there is a risk of the coolant freezing in the primary circuit and thus damaging the fuel assemblies, making them difficult – and more expensive – to remove at a later date. In the autumn of 1995, the local Power Company "Kolenergo" shut off electricity to the naval base Gadzhievo where several laid-up submarines were berthed at the quays. An unpaid electricity bill amounting to about $4,5 million precipitated this action. Power was restored after 40 minutes, when the Northern Fleet sent armed guards to the transformer station. After this incident, the Command center of the Northern Fleet sent out a press release stating that never again would the "Kolenergo" dare to shut off the power. Less then a week thereafter, the power was again shut off for 20 minutes, this time at the military shipyard Sevmorput in Murmansk, where two laid-up nuclear-powered submarines are berthed.

Despite the various government decrees and resolutions on the decommissioning of nuclear submarines, work is far behind schedule. So far, no submarine has been decommissioned in a responsible manner in full compliance with the regulations. Some submarines have been completely dismantled, but their reactor compartments have either been dumped in the Kara Sea or are still stored floating. More than 10 such reactor compartments are stored in Sayda Bay west of Murmansk, and some are stored at the naval shipyard in Severodvinsk, waiting to be towed to Sayda Bay. The distance from Severodvinsk to Sayda Bay is approximately 350 nautical miles, in the harsh Arctic climate. According to the naval yard authorities in Severodvinsk, safe decommissioning of nuclear submarines will not be possible for another five to 10 years, because of the time required to develop the necessary infrastructure. Many essential facilities are lacking, including proper equipment for defueling the reactors, facilities dismantling the vessels and above all, facilities for the treatment and storage of radioactive waste and reactor compartments. New plasma torch equipment for cutting tempered steel hull plates has been financed by the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) project at the Nerpa shipyard and in Severodvinsk, but that does not address the lack of storage for spent fuel and other radioactive waste. Since all land-based storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and special service vessels are filled to capacity, there is no other choice then leaving the spent fuel on board in the reactors. In addition to the storage facilities, proper equipment for handling of nuclear fuel is lacking, while transportation to the Mayak reprocessing plant in Siberia is difficult to say the least. To make matters worse, the Northern Fleet gives priority to the refuelling of operational submarines over the defueling and decommissioning of inactive vessels. In the entire period between 1988 and 1998, only 20 Northern Fleet laid-up submarines have been defueled.

Laid up nuclear submarines have only one third of the crew used on operational submarines, that is, less than 40 men. Overall, the Northern Fleet has about 2,000 people stationed on the laid-up submarines, operating in shifts. The crewmembers often lack the necessary training or are assigned to a laid-up submarine either because they are lacking in competence or are unfit to serve on an active boat. Thus the lack of competent, qualified personnel increases the potential for problems if an emergency procedure becomes necessary in the event of a serious incident involving the reactor.

Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel
The Russian Northern Fleet’s main storage for nuclear waste at the Kola Peninsula is located in Andreeva Bay in the Litsa Fjord, only 30 miles from the border to Norway. During 1997 and 1998, all spent nuclear fuel sent to Andreeva Bay was stored in the open, without protection. The danger of increasing leakage is great. Andreeva Bay is located on the western shore of the Litsa Fjord, opposite the bases for the strategic Typhoon-class missile submarines. Andreeva Bay is the only operating storage site for spent nuclear fuel from the Northern Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarines. A total of 21,000 spent fuel elements are stored here in three concrete tanks in very poor condition. These storage tanks have been filled to capacity since the beginning of the 1990’s. Until 1996, spent fuel was shipped away from the tanks to the reprocessing plant in Mayak in Siberia. Shipments have stopped altogether in 1997. During 1997 and so far this year, all containers transported to Andreeva Bay were stored outside, without any kind of protection. Several dozens of TK-11 and TK-18-type containers with spent fuel are placed on the ground near the three overfilled tanks. Each container holds 35 spent fuel elements with a maximum enrichment of 40%. The unsecured storage of these containers violates Russian and international regulations for handling of nuclear waste. Experts believe that during the winter of 1998/1999, these containers will develop cracks because of ice and snow. When thawing starts in springtime, radioactivity could leak out into the Litsa Fjord. The expected leakage from the new containers will come in addition to already existing leakage from 32 containers, which have been stored in the open for more than 30 years. These are badly affected by the harsh weather conditions. An area of close to one square mile is already radioactively contaminated, and radioactivity is leaking into the sea. Along a small river that runs from the old storage site for spent nuclear fuel, Russian experts have measured elevated radiation levels. Radioactively contaminated water was leaking from the old storage (Building no. 5) in the period between 1982 and 1989. Radioactivity is still transported by this river into the Litsa Fjord.

The three concrete tanks which store 21.000 spent nuclear fuel elements are so run down that the stability of the contained fuel elements is endangered. The distance between each element is only eight inches. The concrete separating the elements has developed cracks because of snow and ice. A substantial risk for criticality (i.e. the initiating of a chain reaction) exists when several elements get too close. The greatest risk for criticality is present when the first period of freezing starts in October and November. During 1997 and 1998, the Northern Fleet did not receive any money to perform necessary work to reduce the risk of criticality, unlike in previous years, when such work was routinely undertaken. When the first freezing period starts this autumn, this lack of maintenance will increase the risk that the elements are pushed together.

Due to arrears in payments for maintenance and even regular salaries to the workers, the Northern Fleet denies to accept the responsibility for future developments. Parts of the Northern Fleet’s Labour Union went on strike in the beginning of October last year in protest of the situation. This year, workers have not been paid since May. They have sent a letter to President Boris Yeltsin, in which they underline that they cannot accept the responsibility for nuclear safety any longer under the present conditions.

On several occasions, Russia has denied experts from Norway, the European Union and the United States access to information on the situation in the Litsa Fjord. Even the Russian civilian nuclear inspection agency Gosatomnadzor has been denied access to the base. Norwegian scientists have for several years been refused to take samples of radioactivity in the area of the Litsa Fjord, and the Bellona report, which describes the situation at the storage site in Andreeva Bay, is still banned in Russia.

In addition to the spent nuclear fuel in Andreeva Bay there is another smaller spent fuel storage at Gremikha – the Northern Fleet’s easternmost base on the Kola Peninsula. These facilities have officially been taken out of operation, but some of the spent fuel still remains inside. About 110 containers with spent fuel are placed outdoors without any form of protective cover or shielding. In addition, there are six liquid metal reactor cores in Gremikha’s storage facility – the remnants of seven Alfa-class submarines built by the Soviet Union.

The Northern Fleet operates six service vessels for refuelling of nuclear submarines. Four of the vessels of Project 326 are more than 30 years old and in very bad maintenance conditions. The fleet also operates two more modern Malina-class vessels, but even these have technical deficiencies. One of the Malina-class vessels cannot be certified until repairs have been made, but the ship remains in active service nevertheless. The civilian nuclear icebreaker fleet has three service ships for handling and storage of spent nuclear fuel, located in the northern part of the city of Murmansk. The spent nuclear fuel should be removed from these vessels.

All in all, more than 45,000 spent nuclear fuel elements are stored in the region, in temporary on-shore storage tanks, on board run-down service vessels and in the reactors on laid-up submarines. No other place in the world has so much spent nuclear fuel stored under such unsafe conditions. Bellona calls it a Chernobyl in slow motion. The Deputy Atomic Energy Minister of Russia, Nikolay Yegorov, even says that "Matters worsen every year…and could turn into a catastrophe worse than Chernobyl."

Environmental impact
Both the Russian Navy and the Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) admitted earlier this year that radiation leakage from the spent nuclear fuel storage in Andreeva Bay had reached serious levels. Measurements conducted by the Murmansk Marine Biological Institute in 1997 (published in 1998) show increased levels of cesium-137 and plutonium-239 in the sediments of the Litsa Fjord outside the storage site and at other nuclear submarine shipyards at the Kola Peninsula.

The measurements from areas surrounding the spent nuclear fuel storage in Andreeva Bay and other submarine bases at the Kola Peninsula show significant increases in sediment radioactivity levels. The most alarming contamination in the sediments was detected outside the Northern Fleet’s main storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in Andreeva Bay. In this area, the top sediments layer contains up to 114 Bq/kg of cesium-137. Bellona has reasons to believe that this contamination is caused by the increased leakage from three ageing storage tanks for spent nuclear fuel, situated only 200 yards from the sea.

The mean cesium-137 content in the upper sediment layer in Andreeva Bay is 81,4 Bq/kg. The highest value (114 Bq/kg) was measured in the top 2.6 inches. Lower down in the sediment layer (3-6 inches), the radioactivity is lower, from 35,4 to 8,3 Bq/kg. This indicates that the exposure to cesium-137 has increased in the most recent period. Further out in the Litsa Fjord, the mean value is 53,5 Bq/kg. This is consistent with Bellona’s prediction concerning increased cracking of storage tanks during the winter, since maintenance has been reduced in the last two years.

Most of the measurements of Cobalt-60 are below the detection limits. The sediment samples taken in the layer between 2 and 2.1 inches deep, however, showed cobalt-60 levels of 5,8 Bq/kg. The reason for this increase can be explained with leakage from Building No. 5 in the period between 1982 to 1987. Building No. 5 was the former wet storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in Andreeva Bay.

The maximum values of Plutonium-239, 240 are from the sediment layer at 1 to 1.1 inches, where two of the samples show values of 8,7 Bq/kg and 5,4 Bq/kg. In the layer above, the plutonium readings are half this rate.

Measurements from the Motovsky Fjord outside the Litsa Fjord indicate a cesium-137 concentration below 10 Bq/kg. This indicates that there is no radioactive contamination leaking out from the Litsa Fjord to the Barents Sea. This is in accordance with theoretical analyses performed by the Bellona Foundation, which show that probable releases of radioactive materials from the Litsa Fjord so far has not affected the fishing grounds in the Barents Sea. But the recent increase in radioactivity levels in Andreeva Bay points to increased leakage from the spent nuclear fuel storage tanks in Andreeva Bay in recent years. If nothing is done within the next few years in order to secure the spent nuclear fuel, the leakage might be detected outside the Litsa Fjord in the open sea. The Barents Sea is today one of the cleanest oceans in the world. The radioactivity measurable there stems mainly from the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the United Kingdom, fallout from the nuclear bomb testing in the 50s and 60s, and from the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

The samples for this study were collected by the Murmansk Marine Biological. The reputable V.G. Khlopin Radium Institute and the Kusnetsov Laboratories in St. Petersburg performed the analyses. More than 100 samples were collected in locations ranging from the Murmansk Fjord in the east to the Petsjenga Fjord in the west. The samples were analyzed for the isotopes cesium-137, cobalt-60 and plutonium-239/240. These measurements of radioactive contamination from the areas outside the naval bases of the Northern Fleet are the first ever to be made publicly available. Since 1995, the Norwegian authorities have been denied permission to perform scientific research of radioactive contamination along the Kola coast several times.

In addition to the increased rate of radioactive contamination in Andreeva Bay, the rate of cobalt-60 in the sediments outside the naval shipyard Shkval in Polyarny is alarming. Polyarny is situated at the western shore of the Murmansk Fjord. Measurements of sediments taken in the period between 1995 and 1997 show an increase from below 10 Bq/kg to above 80 Bq/kg during this 3-year period. The reasons for this explosive increase are as yet unknown. One potential source is the naval shipyard Shkval, where seven obsolete nuclear submarines are situated. One of them, an Echo-II, suffered a meltdown in one of its reactors in 1989. Maintenance of second and third generation nuclear submarines is performed at Shkval.

Mayak reprocessing facility vs. storage on the Kola Peninsula
Russia’s nuclear waste storage problems in the northwestern regions demand fast and decisive national and international action. At this point, however, multilateral projects are mired in a debate over policies – especially concerning the location of the intermediate waste storage facility. Disagreement continues between Moscow and regional authorities over whether to store the spent fuel elements near their location at Kola or transport them to Mayak reprocessing plant in the South Urals. The County Administration in Chelyabinsk, where Mayak is located, has stated on several occasions that no more nuclear waste is welcome in this already heavily contaminated district. Bellona has since 1992 cooperated with local environmental groups in the Chelyabinsk region, mainly with campaigns to stop the reprocessing plant, but also in important local discussions about less secrecy connected to the health effects caused by radioactive contamination. Bellona research strongly indicate that the optimum solution for the management of spent nuclear fuel from the Northern Fleet’s submarines lies in the construction of an intermediate storage facility in the Murmansk region, rather than transportation to the Mayak plant. Various technologies exist for intermediate storage on the Kola Peninsula. The advantages of this option include proximity to the present storage, cost reduction, and a significantly accelerated time frame for safe and proper handling. But the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) insists on transporting the spent fuel to Mayak, reprocess it and earn money on the uranium sale. Secondly, Minatom wants to maintain employment levels at the reprocessing plant in spite of the cessation of fuel shipments from other countries, such as Finland and former Soviet.

The main arguments to build intermediate storage at Kola instead of transporting fuel to Mayak are the following:

  • Cost: Storage facilities on the Kola Peninsula are filled to capacity and are insufficient from a safety point of view. In Mayak, no space is available for additional storage, and the reprocessing plant is often inoperational for spent fuel reprocessing purposes. Thus, regardless of the location chosen, additional storage space needs to be created at comparable cost. Transportation of spent nuclear fuel from the area where it is created to Mayak would add a considerable amount to the total cost. The price for transportation, storage and reprocessing per trainload is estimated to be around $2 million, for a total of between $400 million to $600 million for the entire fuel present on the Kola Peninsula at this time. The Northern Fleet does not have government funding for this level of commitment, nor is it reasonable to expect it in the future. So far, Western donors have not committed funding for this option either, particularly in view of strong opposition to reprocessing.
  • Safety of Transportation: Transportation along the 2,000 miles from the Kola Peninsula to the Mayak facility is considered to be a high safety risk, compared to local transportation from today’s storage sites to a new one a few miles away. In addition, there are no final disposal plans for the highly radioactive waste in Mayak, so the reprocessed waste has to be transported out of the Mayak region at a later stage, potentially making the trip back to where it originated from.
  • International Inspections: Although Mayak has submitted to inspections by the Russian civilian inspection agency Gosatomnadzor (GAN; similar to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency), the plant management has subsequently rejected the orders for improvements by GAN. In light of this precedent, it is difficult to predict with reasonable certainty whether Mayak would be subject to civilian regulations in case international partners funded transportation to Mayak for intermediate storage. The International Atomic Energy Agency has no right to inspect the storage sites for spent nuclear fuel in Mayak.
  • Democracy: Intermediate storage of nuclear fuel has been ruled out explicitly by federal and local authorities on several occasions. In 1989 and 1992, local government bodies voted against any kind of additional nuclear storage in Mayak, already one of the most unhealthy places on Earth. The main culprit for the radioactive contamination is the existing reprocessing facility, which leaks about one-half of the total radioactive escapes from the Chernobyl accident per year into the local environment, from where the contamination is carried into the Arctic Ocean via the Tobol, Irtysh and finally the Ob rivers. In addition to these Soviet- and post-Soviet era local democratic decisions, the Federal State Committee on Ecology also voted to deny any further licenses for storage in Mayak. Western support for storage in Mayak would therefore be the equivalent to open scorn of democratic procedures in a country where the West has interest to support democracy.
  • Schedule: If a second nuclear transport train is built with financial support from Norway or other European states, and assuming both trains run on schedule for the entire next decade, it will take 10 years to move all the existing nuclear waste from the Kola Peninsula to Mayak. Additional waste from disarmament and submarine refuelling is not accounted for in this estimate, nor are maintenance-related interruptions of the train schedule. By comparison, while the train is scheduled to make a round trip between the Kola and Mayak every two months, in 1997 it managed only three trips – one every four months. If this past trend is a guide for the future, it will take 20 years to remove all the existing spent fuel from the Russian Arctic coastline and fishing grounds, where it rests today under precarious conditions. This number does not take into account the fuel that will be added through continuous decommissioning of submarines or refuelling of operational boats.
  • Quality of Fuel: Accidental (damaged) nuclear fuel cannot be loaded into TUK-18 containers for shipment to Mayak. While alternative casks exist, they are expensive. Also, Mayak is not interested in accepting accidental fuel, nor fuel types the facility cannot reprocess. The refusal to accept accidental and non-reprocessable fuel shows that the Russian authorities are not interested in storage in Mayak, in contrast to the hopes of U.S. authorities. Washington is interested in securing the nuclear fuel but remains opposed to reprocessing out of concerns over proliferation risks. Western experts who have visited Mayak have suggested to build a new dry storage facility, but Minatom still want to continue the construction of a water-cooled storage, based on outdated technology, which will never meet international standards. As much as 50 percent of the spent nuclear fuel at Kola Peninsula may be difficult to reprocess. This is mainly the fuel in the corroded storage tanks in Andreeva Bay (21,000 fuel elements, fuel with zirconium-cladding (2,000 to 4,000 elements), old, partly damaged fuel still inside the reactors in first generations submarines (5,000 elements) and fuel from the six liquid metal reactors stored in Gremikha. This fuel represents the most urgent environmental threat and must be secured in the region under all circumstances.
  • Support for the Active Russian Submarine Fleet: Today, all storage facilities on the Kola Peninsula are filled to capacity. Thus, in order to refuel its operational submarines, the Russian Navy must ship spent fuel to Mayak. By supporting the fuel shipments to Mayak, international partners would indirectly support the refuelling of Russia’s operational submarine fleet, in spite of the U.S. Congress’ previous expression of discontent with such a scenario. In this context it is also clear that the Russian Navy will prioritize shipments of fuel from operational submarines over waste from decommissioned vessels, in order to keep the fleet operating. Such a preference is bound to delay further the removal of already existing spent nuclear fuel from the Kola Peninsula.
  • Environmental Catastrophe: The Mayak reprocessing facility has a disastrous track record in terms of environmental destruction. In addition to releasing the equivalent of one-half of the radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl accident into the local environment every year, the plant also contaminates the Arctic Sea and international fishing grounds through the contamination of the Tobol, Irtysh and eventually the Ob rivers. The Mayak plant is releasing more than 700,000 Curies of long-lived isotopes into Lake Karashay annually. Pollution from this lake contaminates the ground water in the surrounding area.
  • Proliferation: Mayak is a reprocessing facility. The Russian authorities are clear in their insistence on shipments of fuel that can be reprocessed, not any other types or accidental fuel. The U.S. policy is that no reprocessing shall take place where U.S. funds are spent. Furthermore, since Mayak is geologically not suitable for permanent storage, intermediately stored nuclear waste, whether it is reprocessed or not, must be transported to a permanent resting-place eventually. That means the fuel needs to be handled repeatedly (with the security risks involved in that process) and shipped over the 2,000-mile long rail track back to the Kola or Novaya Zemlya, the two most likely permanent repositories. Such multiple transport is risky and wasteful.

Bellona supports the funding and construction of intermediate storage facilities on the Kola Peninsula, where the waste is accumulating now. Construction of the physical facilities will cost the same amount as in Mayak, but save the money for transportation to a distant intermediate storage facility, reduce the risk associated with transportation, and eliminate the proliferation problems that occur during reprocessing. Being close to the likely final resting-place, the Bellona option also significantly reduces the costs and risks of transportation from an intermediate to a final storage site.

The Bellona proposal also takes care of the concern over supporting the Russian nuclear fleet in refuelling its active submarines. Bellona supports modular dry storage facilities, in addition to some casks where this is necessary. These facilities could be tailored to the quantities of nuclear waste stored in a certain facility, such as the Lepse storage ship. Thus, the module would be full when a certain funded project is completed. No additional waste could be placed in the module without knowledge of the funders, as the module would be running out of storage space before the predicted point. Meanwhile, due to the modular character of the storage facilities, they can be expanded as funding is made available and as new projects are identified.

No foreign experts allowed to conduct inspections
One of the main problems today is that the Northern Fleet’s storage for spent nuclear fuel in Andreeva Bay and other naval locations belongs to the Ministry of Defence. Military officials allow no foreign experts into these sites. For several years, experts from both Norway and the European Union have been denied entrance to the actual sites, although they came to support Russia in attempts to solve the nuclear waste storage problems. Norway has so far granted more than $30 million to secure military nuclear waste at the neighbouring Kola Peninsula, but only small parts of the grants have been obligated, due to the problem with entrance to the "secret objects." However, the Norwegian side has been assured that it would be no problem to start the cleanup work in Andreeva Bay before Minatom takes over responsibility for nuclear waste from the Navy, since Moscow has provided photos and video footage of the sites. This is of course unacceptable for Norway.

This autumn, the work with a new framework agreement between the Russian Ministry of Defence and Minatom might open new doors. Minatom has recently created a special department, which will work exclusively with issues related to naval spent nuclear fuel handling. The plan is that the civilian sector gradually will take responsibility from the Navy to handle the storage sites for spent fuel at the Kola Peninsula. International efforts to support nuclear safety projects will without doubt benefit from this agreement, thus giving possibility for international experts to enter the premises of Andreeva Bay storage site. However, Minatom officials and Western experts have not yet reached an agreement on whether the spent fuel placed into the planned storage should be reprocessed.

This May, an agreement signed between Norway and Russia removed two other major obstacles that had stalled cleanup projects for several years. The agreement limits liability claims in the event of an accident during cleanup operations and removes taxes and custom tariffs for the required hardware to be brought into Russia. Earlier, robotics tools to remove the 634 hazardous damaged spent fuel elements on board the civilian ship Lepse in Murmansk could not be imported into Russia for this reason. Lepse, belonging to the civilian nuclear powered icebreaker fleet, is a pilot project of significance. The Lepse is the first project on which Norway and the European Union cooperated with Russia on nuclear cleanup. The project was initiated by Bellona in Murmansk in 1994, not only to remove a major nuclear waste problem in Murmansk harbour, but also as a door-opener for other initiatives related to naval nuclear waste. For Bellona, the idea behind the Lepse project was to establish direct cooperation with the regional authorities, without facing the expensive and slow bureaucracy in Moscow. Our experience with nuclear safety work in Russia shows that it is not always a question about signing a good deal in Moscow. It is in the regions where the population faces acute radiation safety problems, and where the willingness to breathe life into ideas exists.

A short summary of the Bellona report "The Russian Northern Fleet – Sources of radioactive contamination" is following. In addition, weekly news updates are available at the Bellona Web (

The Bellona report on the Russian Northern Fleet is the first book to be prohibited in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The prohibition constitutes the most severe setback to the freedom of speech in the new Russia to date. In addition, this decision violates the Russian constitution, which states that everybody is free to publish literature, which does not symphatize with Nazism. The constitution emphasises in particular, that it is not legal to keep information on environmental conditions secret. The Bellona report is based on open sources in its entirety, describing the problems concerning nuclear wastes and submarines in the northern Russian region. This is the first time since the prohibition on import of the Bible to the Soviet Union that a book has been declared as illegal to import, own or distributes.

Summary of the Bellona report "The Russian Northern Fleet"
At the end of World War II, the United States Navy was considerably larger and more powerful that it’s Soviet counterpart. To catch up with this head start, the Soviet Union built a large number of nuclear submarines and a series of new naval bases and shipyards on the Kola Peninsula. The Kola Peninsula is of particular strategic importance due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its year-round ice-free harbour in Murmansk. The first Soviet nuclear submarine was commissioned by the Northern Fleet in 1958. A number of large naval bases and shipyards were established to service the growing fleet of Soviet nuclear-powered vessels. This fleet grew rapidly to become the world’s largest before long.

Nuclear submarines in service
The former Soviet Union built a total of 247 nuclear submarines and five military nuclear-powered battleships. The nuclear submarines were built at four different shipyards. Today, only Sevmash Shipyard in Severodvinsk builds nuclear submarines. At the present time, there are 67 operational nuclear submarines in the Northern Fleet. A total of 88 submarines have been taken out of service. However, due to economic difficulties, a number of the operational vessels remain inactive and tied to the pier for large parts of the year.

Naval Bases
The Northern Fleet has five naval bases on the Kola Peninsula, and some of these have several base facilities. The westernmost of these is Zapadnaya Litsa, while Gremikha is the easternmost. Radioactive waste is stored at most of the naval bases. There are several closed cities in connection with the naval bases, making up a population of over 100,000 inhabitants on the Kola Peninsula. The establishment of the supporting infrastructure at the naval bases has often been delayed compared to the rate of delivery of new nuclear submarines. This is particularly true with regards to storage and treatment facilities for radioactive waste, which continues to present significant technical problems.

There are five shipyards for repair and maintenance and one yard for constructing new nuclear submarines in Murmansk and Archangels counties. Three shipyards belong to the Northern Fleet, while another three of these yards fall under the auspices of the Ministry of Shipbuilding. Due to the cutbacks in the number of operative submarines, the amount of work for these yards has been drastically reduced, leading to some serious economic problems. A few of the shipyards now also accept civilian commissions, and it is also they who are largely responsible for the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. Radioactive waste is stored at all of the shipyards, at times in large amounts.

Solid radioactive waste
Solid radioactive waste is stored at 11 different places along the coast of the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk. All of the facilities are full, and at a number of them, solid radioactive waste is also stored outside the storage building in the open without any kind of protection. There is no regional storage facility for solid nuclear waste.

Liquid radioactive waste
Liquid radioactive waste is stored at almost all of the naval bases, either in land-based tanks, or on board service ships or floating tankers. Most of the storage tanks for liquid radioactive waste are full, and a number of them are in very poor condition. The storage crisis is precipitated by the lack of treatment plants. The processing capacity is too small at the existing civilian treatment plant at the nuclear ice-breaker base Atomflot in Murmansk while the costs to the Northern Fleet are too high.

Storage of spent nuclear fuel
The Northern Fleet’s largest temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel lies at Zapadnaya Litsa in Andreeva Bay, about 25 miles from the Norwegian border. Approximately 21,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies are stored here, corresponding to 90 nuclear reactors. The fuel assemblies are stored in three concrete tanks (also in very poor condition). In the 1980s, large leaks of radioactivity from an old storage pool occurred. Fuel assemblies are also stored in rusting containers in the open without any form of protection from runoff. There is also a smaller storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in Gremikha. Here too, the fuel assemblies have been stored in the open, and there have been incidents of leaks of radioactive waste from the storage pool. The reactor cores from submarines powered by liquid metal cooled reactors are stored in Gremikha.

Transporting spent nuclear fuel
Spent nuclear fuel is transported on board ships that do not satisfy safety regulations. The spent nuclear fuel is transported between the shipyards, temporary storage areas and loading point of the railroad in Murmansk and in Severodvinsk. From these points, the spent nuclear fuel is transported further to the reprocessing facility RT-1 in Mayak. The capacity of rail transportation is seriously lacking given the amount of waste, and reprocessing at Mayak is expensive for the Northern Fleet. The amount of spent nuclear fuel will dramatically increase if the transport problem is not solved. Another solution under consideration is building a large long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in northwestern Russia.

Service Ships
The Northern Fleet has four special tankers for the storage and transport of liquid radioactive waste. None of these ships is in satisfactory condition, and all of them are more than 25 years old. On one ship, the equipment for treating liquid radioactive waste is inoperational. The Northern Fleet also has two large ships for transporting spent nuclear fuel as well as two smaller barges for this purpose.

Decommissioning nuclear submarines
At this time, over 130 Russian nuclear submarines have been taken out of service, of which 88 vessels belong to the Northern Fleet. These submarines have been laid up at Severodvinsk and nine other locations on the Kola Peninsula.

The 52 submarines that have not yet been defueled represent the greatest safety risk. The submarines are not brought into dock, and are in very poor condition. The vessels still containing their nuclear fuel are undermanned. If the work on decommissioning these submarines is to proceed in the proper fashion, a significant infusion of funds either from the state or from some other sources will be necessary.

Accidents on nuclear submarines
From 1961 until present, a number of accidents involving nuclear submarines of the Northern Fleet have occurred. Most of these happened while the submarines were on patrol, although some occurred during refuelling or repair operations. Three Northern Fleet nuclear submarines have sunk. Accidents related to loss of coolant took place on 10 boats, and four serious fires leading to loss of human life broke out on board subs. A number of large and small leaks of radioactive coolant in operational vessels are reported as well.

Economic Problems
In 1994, only 35% of allocated funds were transferred to the Northern Fleet. In 1995, the Northern Fleet did not receive the 600 billion roubles allocated in the Russian budget. What money was transferred went largely for paying salaries and welfare benefits for Northern Fleet personnel. Resources for maintaining storage facilities for radioactive waste were sharply cut back, and in the last two years, hardly any work at all has been done in securing radioactive waste. On two occasions, unpaid electricity bills resulted in the shut-off of power at a shipyard and a naval base respectively.

The Northern Fleet is now investigating alternative possibilities for earning income, including selling naval vessels to foreign countries and leasing its nuclear submarines for other than military purposes.

Reduced Competence
Eighty percent of all naval specialists and operators of naval nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union were trained at the naval college in Sevastopol. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the school has not been used; Sevastopol is located in Ukraine. Economic problems also result in less operational training for the crews; furthermore, worsening social conditions result in ever fewer officers choosing to renew their five-year contracts with the Russian Navy. High turnover of qualified officers also reduces safety standards.

Overview over sources of radioactive contamination in the Russian Northern Fleet

Place Amount  
Zapadnaya Litsa Naval Bases 26 operational nuclear submarines
One inactive nuclear submarine with nuclear fuel
One inactive nuclear submarine
23.260 spent fuel assemblies
2.000 m3 liquid radioactive waste
6.000 m3 solid radioactive waste
(Ura Bay)
Naval bases 4 operational nuclear submarines
One reactor of Nurka class
14 inactive nuclear submarines containing nuclear fuel
At least 3 m3 liquid radioactive waste Solid radioactive waste
Naval bases Unknown number of nuclear submarines
200 m3 liquid radioactive waste
2.037 m3 solid radioactive waste
Occasional service ship containing nuclear fuel
Occasional service ship with liquid radioactive waste
Saida Bay Storage Facility 12 submarine hulls with reactors
Severomorsk Naval base Three nuclear powered battle cruisers
Gremikha Naval base Some operational nuclear submarines
15 inactive nuclear submarines
0 m3 solid radioactive waste
00 m3 liquid radioactive waste
5 spent fuel assemblies
or cores from submarines with liquid metal cooled reactors
Nerpa Shipyard 2 submarines in process of being decommissioned
Periodical service ships containing spent nuclear fuel
Periodical service ships with liquid radioactive waste
200 m3 solid radioactive waste
170 m3 liquid radioactive waste
Shipyard One submarine in for maintenance
One service ship with spent nuclear fuel
One service ship with liquid radioactive waste
7 inactive nuclear submarines with fuel
Storage facility for solid radioactive waste
150 m3 liquid radioactive waste
Sevmorput Shipyard One inactive nuclear submarine with spent nuclear fuel
One inactive nuclear submarine –
Occasional service ship with liquid radioactive waste
Storage for solid radioactive waste
Severodvinsk Shipyards 12.539 m3 solid radioactive waste
3.000 m3 liquid radioactive waste
4 nuclear submarines in for maintenance
12 inactive nuclear submarines with nuclear fuel
4 reactor compartments from decommissioned nuclear submarines
Russian Arctic Cost Lighthouses 132 lighthouses with RTG,
Strontium-90 batteries,
Kara Sea Dumped nuclear waste 10 reactors without fuel
6 reactors with spent fuel
17 vessels with solid radioactive waste
6,508 containers with radioactive waste