one of many rusting, decommissioned russian submarines. bellona photo

Russia Is Finally Slicing Up Its Abandoned, Radioactive Submarines

Nuclear contamination has been a persistent source of danger along Russia’s Arctic coast

Robert Beckhusen
Oct 17, 2013 · 3 min read

The archetypal image of Eastern European nuclear contamination is the radioactive wilderness of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the abandoned city of Pripyat. But more than 1,000 miles to the north, the Russians have spent years struggling to dispose of hundreds of nuclear reactors left over from decaying, geriatric Soviet nuke subs.

It’s a dangerous, vexing problem. The Soviet Union built more than 260 nuclear-powered ships during the Cold War, most of them submarines with the occasional surface ship and even icebreaker. But Russia decommissioned more than half of them during the 1980s and 1990s as the economy imploded and Moscow’s military budget collapsed.

The rusting, contaminated remnants of these ships — the large reactor containers are a particular source of pollution — sit floating along Russia’s Arctic coast, with few places to put them.

At least that was the case for most of the post-USSR era. A growing facility at Saida Bay next to the Barents Sea is taking on an increasing share of the storage for all the contaminated material. The facility, one of the largest for nuclear naval waste in Russia, has been the recipient of millions of dollars in international funding in recent years.

It’s not glamorous. The facility stores nuclear containers on a piece of dredged and excavated former swampland near the Norwegian border. It’s topped with a large concrete slab and lined with walls and barbed wire. Officially titled Regional Centre for Radioactive Waste Conditioning and Long Term Storage, the facility is expected to begin disassembling large amounts of radioactive waste by the fall of 2014 once a neighboring building with the necessary equipment is finished.

“It will allow us forget about the problems of safe storage of reactor units from nuclear submarines, block packages of nuclear icebreakers and service ships, and about radioactive waste in the Murmansk region for many decades,” Andrey Zolotkov, the director of St. Petersburg-based environmental group Bellona, told the Barents Observer.

Nuclear waste storage at Saida Bay, Murmansk Oblast, Russia. Bellona Photo

Fifty-eight containers are already at the site, weighing up to 1,600 tons each. The Observer reported it should be able to take on around 130 by this time next year. Many of the nuclear containers that store their reactors are so badly contaminated that it will be a century before they’re safe enough to remove.

Even with a growing disposal site, it’s not easy disposing of entire contaminated ships that are still floating out in the water.

One of the more notorious examples is the Lepse, a 79-year-old decaying nuclear service vessel that started its life as a cargo ship but spent much of the Cold War handling spent nuclear fuel assemblies and dumping the material in the ocean. It became so contaminated the ship was abandoned outside Murmansk in 1988, still filled with hundreds of tons of radioactive waste. It wasn't moved out of the port — destination being a scrapyard further up the coast — until last month.

But it’s still not been scrapped and had its radioactive waste removed. The dry dock at Nerpa Shipyard where Lepse is to be cut apart is currently occupied by the remains of Soviet submarine K-3 Leninsky Komsomol, the first Soviet nuclear submarine ever built.

That ship is limbo, with Moscow torn between spending around $15 million to preserve it or $1.5 million to scrap it. “Officially, [Leninsky Komsomol] belongs to the Ministry of Defense, whose decision and financial responsibility it is to give the sub some historical fanfare or just let it be crushed into safety pins,” wrote Anna Kireeva, an environmental writer with Bellona. The ministry is still undecided.

Where Lepse comes, more radioactive ships will follow. Two more nuclear service vessels, the Volodarsky and Lotta, are next in line at the scrap heap after the Lepse. Not like there’s a hurry.

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War Is Boring

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    Robert Beckhusen

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    Editor at War Is Boring. Email: firstnamelastname (at) gmail.

    War Is Boring

    From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

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