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The Russian Northern Fleet
The Russian Northern Fleet is experiencing problems with its nuclear powered vessels and with the storage of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste that the operation of these vessels generate Jump to report
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At the end of World War 2, the United States Navy was considerably larger and more powerful that its 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 interest and importance due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the fact that its coast is free of ice in the winter. The first Soviet nuclear submarine was taken into use by the Northern Fleet in 1958. A number of larger 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 fleet.
The former Soviet Union built a total of 247 nuclear submarines and five military nuclear powered battle ships. 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 with 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.
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 towns 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 technological problems.
There are five shipyards for repair and maintenance and one yard for constructing new nuclear submarines in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk counties. Three shipyards are subject 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 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 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 icebreaker base Atomflot in Murmansk while the costs to the Northern Fleet are too high.
The Northern Fleet's largest temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel lies at Zapadnaya Litsa in Andreeva Bay, about 40 km 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, there were large leaks of radioactivity from an old storage pool. Fuel assemblies are also stored in rusty containers outside 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 outside, and there have been leaks of radioactive waste from the storage pool. The reactor cores from submarines running with liquid metal cooled reactors are stored in Gremikha.
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. There is a serious lack of capacity of rail transportation, and reprocessing at Mayak is quite expensive for the Northern Fleet. The amounts 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 north-western Russia.
The Northern Fleet has four special tankers for the storage and transport of liquid radioactive waste. None of these ships are in satisfactory condition, and all of them are over 25 years old. On one ship, the equipment on board for treating liquid radioactive waste does not work. The Northern Fleet also has two larger ships for transporting spent nuclear fuel as well as two smaller barges for this purpose.
At this time, there are over 130 Russian nuclear submarines that 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 greatest risk to safety is presented by the 52 submarines that have not yet been defuelled. 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 of decommissioning these submarines is to proceed in the proper fashion, a significant infusion of funds either from the state or from some other source will be necessary.
From 1961 until the present, there have been many accidents involving nuclear submarines of the Northern Fleet. Most of these have happened while the submarine was on patrol, although some have also occurred during refuelling or repair operations. Three nuclear submarines belonging to the Northern Fleet have sunk. There have been loss of coolant accidents in 10 submarines and four serious fires on board these vessels in which human life has been lost. There have also been a number of large and small leaks of radioactive coolant in operational vessels.
In 1994, only 35% of allocated funds were transferred to the Northern Fleet in real terms. In 1995, the Northern fleet did not receive in real terms the 600 billion roubles allocated to it 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 have been 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. 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.
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, since Sevastopol is located in Ukraine. Economic problems also result in less operational training for the crew than earlier; furthermore, worsening social conditions result in ever fewer officers choosing not to renew their five year contracts with the Russian Navy. The turnover of officers undermines the safety.
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