Daniel .A. Curran, a former nuclear submarine officer, ts a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Embassy in Norway, the potentially catastrophic nature of radioactive waste and pollution in northwest Russia, mainly from aging nuclear submarines and spent reactor fuel, has prompted several bilateral and multilateral cleanup programs, now underway. The programs are focusing on:
1. Cooperative cleanup efforts among the U.S., Norway, and Russia.
2. Increasing the processing and storage capacity for various types of nuclear waste.
3. Attacking certain high priority project areas, such as the scrapping of Russian nuclear submarines and cleaning up specific problems including the rusting, nuclear fuel laden cargo ship known as LEPSE.
Key efforts in the region include:
- Six initial projects to be done under the trilateral (U.S., Norway, and Russia) framework of the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperative Declaration (AMEC).
- A trilateral Murmansk initiative (the U.S., Norway, and Russia) addressing an increased processing capacity in northwest Russia for low-level liquid radioactive waste.
- Joint Russian-Norwegian efforts to remove the radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel from some 70 decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines.
- Multilateral efforts (France, the European Union (EU), and Norway) to clean up LEPSE (a rusty cargo ship in Murmansk harbor containing hundreds of spent nuclear fuel rods and other radioactive waste)
On September 27, 1996, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Perry, Defense Minister Kosmo of Norway, and then-Defense Minister Rodionov of Russia signed the AMEC Declaration in Bergen, Norway. AMEC pledges cooperation among the three countries to address nuclear and non-nuclear environmental problems and pollution prevention in the Arctic region of military origin.
Six projects in northwest Russia with a total estimated cost of $17.3 million have already been agreed upon by all sides for implementation. They are:
1. Development of a prototype container for interim storage of special nuclear fuel.
2. Development of technology for the treatment of liquid radioactive waste.
3. Review and implementation of technology for solid radioactive waste volume reduction.
4. Review of technology and procedures for interim storage of solid radioactive waste, and development of a storage facility.
5. Remediation of hazardous waste sites on military bases.
6. Review and implementation of clean ship technologies.
Together with the U.S. and Russia, the Government of Norway is upgrading a low level liquid radioactive waste treatment facility in Murmansk to provide an alternative to the previous Russian practice of dumping low level radioactive waste into Arctic waters. The hope is that the increased treatment capacity will allow the Russians to create an environmentally sound cradle to grave approach to managing low level waste from its civilian icebreaker and military nuclear fleets in the northwest region. This increased capacity should allow them to sign the London Convention (the international dumping treaty).
As a result of the ST ART Agreements, Russia has decommissioned numerous nuclear submarines from the Russian Northern Fleet. About 90 decommissioned submarines are rusting at the docks and could eventually sink, of which an estimated 72 still have their nuclear reactors inside. The number of decommissioned submarines is expected to rise to 125 by 2010. According to Russian estimates, they currently have the capacity to scrap just two to four submarines per year in the region.
A feasibility study to determine how best to dispose of these decommissioned nuclear submarines was recently completed by a Norwegian firm and a Russian company. Based on this report, the submarine scrapping program, sponsored by Norway, will focus on seven projects:
1. Constructing a container vessel for special nuclear fuel.
2. Constructing special railway cars for transporting special nuclear fuel.
3. Constructing a temporary storage facility for liquid radioactive waste.
4. Establishing a mobile facility for concentrating liquid radioactive waste.
5. Constructing a temporary storage facility for solid radioactive waste.
6. Emptying and shutting down an unsafe facility for special nuclear fuel in Andreev Bay.
7. Possible assistance in the completion of an intermediate storage facility for special nuclear fuel from submarines at the Mayak Plant in the Ural mountains.
LEPSE is a cargo ship sitting at the Murmansk docks filled with special nuclear fuel (much of it damaged according to the report) and other nuclear waste. An EU financed study of how to remove the special nuclear fuel and other waste safely and place it in proper storage containers is now finished.
While overall financial responsibility for the project is still Russian, several other sources including France, Norway, and the EU are pledging funding for the LEPSE cleanup effort. In addition, the Nordic Environment Finance Corporation has indicated it will make a substantial contribution to the project.
There is also assistance provided under the AMEC framework by using LEPSE as a training site to teach Russian military personnel how to safely remove damaged special nuclear fuel, and by development of interim storage containers for the special nuclear fuel once it is removed.
Meanwhile, the Russian Pacific Fleet is not without its problems. On May 30, 1997, a Charlie I class submarine, part of the Project 670A (decommissioning and dismantling of the Charlie class submarine in the Pacific Fleet) sank at the Russian submarine base in Avachinska Bay on the Kamchatka peninsula. According to a Russian Navy Pacific Fleet press release, the submarine, reportedly defueled, lost its buoyancy due to a hole in its rusty hull. A salvage effort began on June 2, 1997 to recover the sub from about 60 feet of water. The submarine should not present a danger to the environment according to the fleet press center.
There are 11 Charlie I class submarines, each with a pressurized water reactor, stationed in the Pacific Fleet. The class was constructed at the Gorky shipyard in the late ’60s and early ’70s. All are reportedly out of service.
These efforts are bound to be hampered by the continuing budget problems in the Russian military and the recent sack: of the top two Russian defense officials by Russian President Boris Yellsin. Information on the state of the Russian Navy, particularly the problems with the submarine fleet, are detailed on at least two web sites. The best, in my opinion, is a web site produced by the Bellona Foundation in Norway. The URL is:
NR-1 RETURNS FROM DEPLOYMENT
“Groton, Conn. (NWSA) -Naval Research Vessel (NR) 1, the Navy’s smallest and only research submarine, returned home to Naval Submarine Base Groton, Conn. Sept. 20.
During a five month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, NR-1 and a research team from the National Geographic Society discovered a large concentration of ancient shipwrecks while exploring off the northwest coast of Sicily.
The discovery was a major breakthrough in marine archeology. Eight sailing ships, spread over 20 square miles, were lying 2,300 feet beneath the surface of the Mediterranean. The oldest ship, dating from about 100 BC, is one of the earliest Roman shipwrecks ever discovered.
Three of the ships were of relatively modem origin, including two from the 19111 century and an Islamic ship from the 18th.”