Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


The Current Status and Challenges of Radioactive Waste in the Russian Navy

The effects of the Cold War have been felt by billions of individuals worldwide. Politics, military force structures and the environment are just a few of the areas of nations which were touched by the Cold War often silently inflicting change under the guise of national defense. Only recently has the United States truly discovered those far-reaching environmental impacts. While the impact in America is significant, it is only a shadow of the scope of the problem found in the former Soviet Union.

In order to arm itself the Soviet Union conducted an unlimited production of nuclear weapons and nuclear powered military vessels. In particular, the Russian Navy produced several hundred nuclear powered submarines and surface ships. In many instances, the production, operation, refueling and decommissioning of these vessels completely overrode any concern for the long-term effects on the environment.

Recently, the radioactive waste generated by the Russian Navy has come to the forefront of public concern both within Russia and internationally. While recent political and legislative initiatives and a greater degree of openness in Russia have indicated that the problem is being addressed, the current challenges to those agencies tasked with managing several decades of radioactive waste from naval nuclear power and other sources are enormous.

As an example of the gross mismanagement of radioactive waste, spent nuclear fuel cells inside waste containers are stored in the open air at Andreeva Bay in Northeast Russia and are corroding rapidly. This facility and others like it across Russia have encountered numerous technical and financial hurdles in establishing and practicing credible radioactive waste management. In particular, the Russian Navy currently suffers under an enormous legacy of mismanagement of radioactive waste from its nuclear powered fleet. The problem is two-fold in that the country bears the burden of past mistakes and must also confront the challenges of continuing to operate and build nuclear propelled naval vessels.

The Cold War provided the USSR with motivation to produce nuclear fleets unchecked in many cases by environmental concern. Intentional and risky disposal of radioactive waste during the height of the Cold War was common in the Soviet naval complex. Many practices concealed and condoned under the communist regime would be unthinkable by current Western standards.

Currently, the Russian nuclear fleet operates approximately seventy-five vessels. Along with the concern for safe operation of those power plants, the Russian Navy leadership has inherited the ghosts of the radioactive waste problems created by the operation and decommissioning of this nuclear fleet over the past 40 years.

The different radioactive waste management challenges presented to the Russian Navy can be summarized by studying the basic lifecycle of a nuclear ship. After initial construction a vessel will normally be utilized for two core lifetimes prior to decommissioning. In many instances the Russian Navy has kept vessels in its fleet longer than this by refueling the reactor plant a second time thus extending the lifetime of the naval asset to three core lifetimes. Each of the lifecycle phases presents its own unique radioactive waste management challenges to the Russian Navy.

The construction of a naval nuclear propulsion plant raises the same radioactive waste management concerns as the construction of a commercial nuclear power plant. Uranium mining results in the generation of mill tailings with a concern for the emission of radon gas from the tailing piles and exposure to workers within the mines. In 1990, the former Soviet Union had an inventory of 5 billion tons of mill tailings and was producing approximately 7 million tons of uranium mill tailings per year corresponding to 600,000 curies of radioactivity.

Fuel cell fabrication for Russian navy vessels with pressurized water reactors is conducted at Elektrosol just outside of Moscow. Russian naval propulsion plants use fuel with a uranium enrichment of 22 to 90 percent. The process of enriching the uranium is carried out at four sites throughout Russia. Each of these plants has been characterized by vast mismanagement of radioactive waste and emissions over the last several decades. For example, in one instance an enrichment plant dumped approximately 54,000 curies into the Yennissey River. Consequently, th is release yieldeddetectable radioactive contamination 1500 kilometers downstream. (Bradley, 1997)

Once fuel cells are fabricated they are shipped to the construction sites for the actual ships which they will propel. The sites are located at Severodvinsk Naval Yards near Arkhangelsk, Admiralty Yard in St Petersburg, Krasnoye Soromovo in Nizhny Novgorod, and Amurslcy Yard on the Pacific coast near Komsomolsk.(Nilsen et. al, 1997) Numerous instances of radioactive waste mismanagement have been documented at these shipyards. The Severodvinsk Naval Yards dumped nearly all solid radioactive waste produced prior to 1991 directly in the Kara Sea to the east of the shipyard. Additionally, some radioactive waste was discovered in municipal waste sites near the shipyard. While both of these practices have been discontinued and procedures are allegedly in place to prevent these problems from reoccurring, the problems of credible radioactive waste management at all of the construction shipyards continues to challenge the managers of these yards in the difficult fiscal environment within Russia. (Bradley, 1997)

Once construction or refueling is complete the vessel will be operated for approximately a decade during each of the core lifetime periods. Daily operation and periodic routine maintenance also generate radioactive waste requiring disposal by the military complex. Russian Navy nuclear subs and ships generate 20,000 cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste and 6,000 tons of solid radioactive waste annual I y. (Bradley, 1997)

In addition to normal daily operation, reactor accidents during operational periods of the nuclear power plants have also presented some difficult waste management problems for the Russian Navy. Serious reactor accidents have resulted in six Russian submarines being taken out of service early. Due to the leakage from the fuel cells into the propulsion plant piping and components, even after the removal of the damaged fuel cells approximately, 100,000 curies of activity remain spread through each of the propulsion plants. All damaged reactor plants are stored at a shipyard; – however, several of the reactor cores were removed and dumped into the Kara Sea, an offshoot of the Arctic Ocean near the island of Novaya Zemlya. A total initial activity of approximately 37 million curies of reactor radioactive waste has been dumped into the Kara Sea over the last 25 years.(Bradley, 1997)

In addition to the submarines which have returned to port following serious reactor accidents, the Russian Navy has had several reactor and non-reactor accidents that resulted in the complete loss of its nuclear vessels at sea. They have lost submarines in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and as close to the United States as the Bahamas. A total of four nuclear powered and 5 diesel powered submarines have been lost at sea. Disregarding one of the nuclear powered submarines which was salvaged, a total of 5 nuclear reactors containing highly radioactive fission products and 43 nuclear warheads containing several kilograms of plutonium each remain lost in the world’s oceans.(Bradley, 1997)

The most recent sinking has received international attention lately. The Mike class submarine was built by the Soviet Union in the mid 1980’s and was referred to by its Russian name-KOMSOMOLETS. Propelled by a nuclear propulsion plant with two reactor cores, only one of this type of submarine was built by the Soviet Union. On 7 April 1989, the one and only Mike class submarine sunk in the Norwegian Sea just north of Bear Island.

Expeditions over the last several years by Deep Submersible Vehicles show the submarine has several holes in the front part of the hull and a large crack extending from the lower to upper portion of her hull. The end result was two reactor cores and two nuclear torpedoes resting in 4500 feet of water in the Norwegian Sea.

As of the lit of January 1995, the total activity on the sunken submarine was estimated at 216,000 curies. Most of the activity is contained in the two reactor cores in the form of fission fragments. Calculations have shown that the reactor plant containment should remain intact for 2000 years by which time the only significant isotope present will be the long-lived plutonium activity. The two nuclear torpedoes that sunk with the submarine contain a total of 6 kg of plutonium which at present is still contained within the torpedo shells. Even if all plutonium were to leak from the torpedoes, the radionuclide contamination would still be considered low level as compared to other releases to the Arctic waters. For example, the British plutonium production and reprocessing plant at Sellafield England released approximately 300 kg of plutonium to the Irish Sea between Ireland and England over its years of operation. (Bradley, 1997)

Submarine operational accidents constitute only a small portion of the radioactive waste problem. A much more serious concern is the large inventory of spent fuel being amassed by the former Soviet Union. The Andreeva Bay refueling facility located in the northwest region of Russia near Murmansk performs the bulk of refueling operations for the Russian Northern fleet. At this facility, spent fuel cells are stored in a special building and in three enormous tanks. Currently, there are also 52 containers of spent fuel stored in open air storage. Outside storage is the most dangerous of the radioactive waste management practices at this facility due to the rapid corrosion of the waste containers. Some of the containers are already breached, allowing water to enter and contact the fuel cells themselves resulting in an even more dangerous situation as the fuel cell cladding begins to corrode.

Currently, 21,000 spent fuel cells are stored at the Andreeva Bay facility. As of 1994, approximately 30,000 spent fuel cells from Northern and Pacific fleet sources were in storage and approximately 25,000 more remain in submarines no longer in service awaiting defueling. Both the Northern and Pacific fleet fuel cells are scheduled to be sent eventually to the reprocessing facility at Mayak in south central Russia.(Bradley, 1997) However in 1997, only one shipment to Mayak was completed due to lack of funding and the inability of the rail transport system to meet new, more stringent, safety regulations.(BBC, 1998)

Besides the obvious problems involved in storing spent fuel, the risk and consequences of accidents occurring during the refueling process is enormous. The most serious refueling accident occurred in Chazma Bay near Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of Russia in August 1985. During refueling of a nuclear submarine, a reactor vessel lid was positioned incorrectly. A violation of procedures resulted in the vessel lid being lifted while the control rods for the reactor core were still attached. When the lid was raised the control rods were withdrawn from the core. The reactor became prompt critical resulting in an enormous power excursion and a steam explosion. The explosion led to a fire that took 4 hours to extinguish. In the end, ten people were killed and seven million curies of radioactivity were released to the environment. A radioactive trail 6 km long and 500 m wide was deposited on the adjacent countryside. However, most of the activity was subsequently washed into the bay. The sediment activity levels as
measured 10 years after the accident in Chazma Bay and the adjacent Strelok Bay are still considerable. The Chazma Bay incident remains at the forefront of environmental concerns and in 1995 was specified to receive funding priority for the remaining cleanup that is needed.(Bradley, 1997)

The final step in the lifecycle of a nuclear propulsion plant is decommissioning. The most crucial step involving radioactive waste disposal and management is the defueling process. The Russians have decommissioned and defueled approximately 150 submarines and surface ships. However, there are about 130 submarines being stored awaiting defueling and much of the fuel removed from earlier vessels is still not deposited in final storage. The current planned rate of defueling is 10 ships per year, meaning approximately 13 years will be required to defuel the current backlog. These ships are stored at various shipyards throughout Russia and most are still waterborne, sitting idle awaiting their turn for removal of their spent nuclear fuel. (Bradley, 1997) According to Russian sources, only two submarines were being accommodated for decommissioning during 1997 due to financial and labor issues at the shipyards.

Currently the Russian government intends to construct a high level radioactive waste storage facility on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Kara Sea north of the Russian mainland as well as continue to send spent fuel to Mayak for reprocessing. However, current concerns over the safety of rail transport to Mayak have halted shipments to southern Russia at this time.(Bradley, 1997)

Although the United States’ nuclear industry has been attacked for its practices and problems, the Russian problem is by far much worse. This trend of uncontrolled and intentional release by all nuclear industries in the Soviet Union carried directly over into the waste management practices of the Soviet Navy. Without the presence of political pressure and independent oversight, the Russian nation has released enormous amounts of radioactive waste to the environment. (Bradley, 1997)

The Russian Navy has used ocean dump sites for radioactive waste over the last few decades. The type of waste dumped has ranged from high volume low level waste to highly radioactive spent fuel from defueled ships, with most of the dumping under a veil of secrecy which has only recently been lifted. In fact they have dumped more activity into the Kara Sea than the entire rest of the world has dumped throughout the world’s oceans. The estimated activity level of Russian waste in the Kara Sea is presently over 2 million curies, accounting for decay from the time of disposal in the sea. This high activity level was reached due to the practice of dumping reactors with spent nuclear fuel into the sea, a practice which has since been discontinued.(Bradley, 1997)

Although the collapse of the communist regime within Russia has brought a better system of oversight to the Russian defense complex, radioactive waste management for the Russian Navy is still in its infancy. While the oversight and practices of the Russian Navy are showing signs of improving, the sheer magnitude of the recovery problem from the past 45 years of mistakes is staggering. The backlog of decommissioned ships which have yet to be defueled and the poor state of storage facilities for the spent fuel are two examples of the challenges faced by the Russian Navy. Moreover, the problem continues to grow since Russia still feels the need to provide for its national self defense utilizing nuclear powered vessels.

Although the picture is grim based upon the sheer magnitude of the contamination and waste inventory, recent years have resulted in a dramatic change in attitude of the Russian nation toward radioactive waste management. For the most of the Cold War the Ministry of Medium Machine Building oversaw the Soviet nuclear complex. However, this agency was entirely concerned with production. Until 1984 the radioactive waste safety concerns within the Soviet Union were covered by the State Sanitary Surveillance of Public Health Ministry which· only approached the issue from a radiation protection standpoint and did little to affect safe disposal and storage of radioactive waste. The Ministry of Nuclear Power and the Ministry of Medium Machine Building were merged into the Ministry of Atomic Power and Industry, producing an organization with a more far-reaching regulatory role in 1989. As a result, government officials began to produce legislative results in 1991. Important safety regulations and environmental protection acts were passed that year, including several.documents pertaining to radioactive waste management and handling. One year later, President Boris Yeltsin created by decree the Ministry of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation (Minatom). By this decree Minatom became responsible for oversight and implementation of the entire nuclear fuel cycle from mining and milling to
waste management and disposal. Over the next several years, Minatom studied the problem and began to develop programs to deal with the Russian radioactive waste problem, declaring radioactive waste management as the top Russian priority. The legislative successes continued for several years culminating in the comprehensive Federal Program for the Management of Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Material in 1995. This act was designed to “protect present and future generations and the environment from harmful effects of accumulated and generated radioactive wastes and spent nuclear materials.”(Bradley, 1997)

These successes in government openness and oversight of the nuclear waste problem can be tied to several specific and promising accomplishments by the nuclear industry. By 1995, an aggressive waste vitrification program at the Mayak reprocessing plant had resulted in 220 million curies of high level liquid radioactive waste being vitrified. This total is equivalent to vitrifying 100 percent of the waste located at the Hanford site and 25 percent of the waste located at the Savannah River site in the United States. Additionally, as in the United States, the Russians are debating a location for a permanent geologic repository for their radioactive wastes. Two possibilities being studied are the Mayak region where a large amount of waste is already located and the permafrost region on the southern end of the island of Nova ya Zeml ya in the Arctic Ocean.(Bradley, 1997)

However, the commitment of the Russian government to an honest and open disclosure of the problem must be questioned at least at some levels of the national leadership. In late 1995 Russian security forces broke into the Murmansk offices of the Bellona Foundation, an organization studying the Russian Northern fleet radioactive waste management problem and it effects on the entire Arctic region. Computers, communication equipment and written material were confiscated. A second raid occurred one week later in Severodvinsk in the offices of a local environmental group. Nevertheless, having re-equipped their office in Murmansk the Benona Foundation continues to study the waste problems of the Russian Northern fleet and act as unofficial advisors on the matter to the Norwegian government.(Perera, 1995)

In addition to their own efforts, the Russians have received both voluntary and requested international assistance in the area of radioactive waste management. The United States has played an active role in ensuring the Russian federation has every chance of succeeding at credible waste management. The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CI’R) program, a joint United States and Russian effort, has provided American funds to decommission five nuclear powered submarines in 1998. Moreover, this program has committed funds for the decommissioning of four or five submarines during 1999. CTR is just one example of the commitment of the United States to aiding the Russian Navy in solving its radioactive waste problem.(Kudrik, 1998) Furthermore, geographic proximity has motivated Japan and Norway to also become actively involved in the Russian issue of radioactive waste. In 1993, an incident of dumping liquid radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan raised Japanese concerns. The Japanese and United States governments entered into negotiations to assist the Russian Pacific fleet with liquid waste processing facilities in the Pacific region. To the east, Norway had provided approximately $20 million in free aid by 1996 to the Russian radioactive waste management industry. In late May 1998 agreements were reached overcoming several political hurdles involving liability and tarriffs, which would allow the Norwegian government to directly aid in the cleanup of the Russian northern fleets leaking storage facilities for spent fuel on the Kola peninsula. This recent agreement funnels approximately $60 million into the Russian radioactive waste management problem. In addition to economic aid, numerous Norwegian scientists such as those employed by the Bellona Foundation continue to study and document the scope and severity of the Russian radioactive waste problem. Additionally, a cooperative commitment of 17 .3 million dollars by the Russian, American and Norwegian governments was negotiated to improve environmental conditions in the Arctic region with almost exclusive emphasis on radioactive waste concerns.(Bradley, 1997)

Recent achievements in Russia provide hope for the future. However, it is important to keep in mind the vast scope of the radioactive waste problem resulting from the Russian Navy’s nuclear powered fleet. International concern and involvement is required as well as a continuing domestic policy of openness and sincere dedication to solving the radioactive waste issue within Russia. Although shipbuilding is at a lower rate than at the height of the Cold War, the continued production and operation of nuclear powered vessels make it imperative that credible radioactive waste management practices are in place in the Russian Navy. The poor waste management practices of the Soviet regime during the Cold War have left a daunting legacy to the Russian federation and former Soviet republics.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League