Cleaning up the Cold War legacy

1 February 2002

Last year's international science and technological seminar on ecological problems and solutions of nuclear submarine decommissioning was held in Severodvinsk, in the Archangelsk region of Russia. By Edward K Avdonin and Sergey D Gavrilov

Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (Minatom) and Ministry of Defence officials, Navy high commanders, Shipbuilding Agency representatives, heads of the leading shipbuilding and machine-building plants, legislation and executive officials met in Severodvinsk last year, where Russian nuclear submarines have been, and are being, built, and where decommissioning activities are underway.

Foreign experts and representatives of official and business circles from the USA, Norway, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Netherlands, Denmark and India, as well as representatives from the IAEA, European Union, ISTC and AMEC programme (Russia-USA-Norway) also took part in the seminar. The seminar was held on the premises of the state shipyards Zvezdochka and Sevmash, and the state research institute Onega.

The seminar provided a forum to:

• Analyse experience of decommissioning nuclear submarines.

• Discuss technical problems arising during their dismantling.

• Outline solutions according to Russian and Western practice.

• Discuss methods for intensifying foreign investment in de-activation and dismantling nuclear ships.

Nuclear submarine decommissioning activities are carried out using advanced technologies and state-of-the-art equipment. Decommissioning does not affect the environment in the area where they are conducted. According to the papers presented at the seminar, the Russian side can execute almost all dismantling work on its own but, for work concerning the general improvement of ecological safety, foreign assistance is needed.

The present ecological situation in the regions that carry out submarine decommissioning is promising. There is not a single nuclear ship decommissioning project where extra negative effects on the environment and population can be observed. This results from introduction of new technologies, strict adherence to regulatory requirements, technological and financial assistance from the international community, good working conditions, effective management of spent nuclear fuel and radwaste, and the restoration of coastal bases.

Due to international obligations on arms reductions, the rate of submarine decommissioning was increased. Minatom, as contractor and co-ordinator of decommissioning, reached an annual rate of unloading spent nuclear fuel from ship reactors from 4 to 20. At present, about 190 submarines are in the process of being decommissioned. Of these, 60 have been dismantled, and there are still 130 floating submarines, including 100 of which still have spent nuclear fuel still in their reactors.

There were presentations on submarine dismantling technologies, ship spent nuclear fuel and radwaste management, methods of decontamination and site restoration, regulatory aspects and associated health and safety issues, and decommissioning of ships with nuclear reactors and support vessels.

technologies used

Environmental and radioecological issues arising from dismantling submarines and reprocessing of parts/equipment were described in several papers by V Nikitin (Onega), V Petrushenko and V Ivanov (Zvezdochka), and V Kononov and S Tsyikov (Sevmach), in Track 1, "Technology processes used for nuclear submarine decommissioning and their effect on the environment." Nikitin described the procedure of dismantling submarines developed by Zvezdochka and Onega R&D technological bureau. The various methods of hull cutting, equipment dismantling and removal, radwaste handling and shipment of three-compartment sections were assessed — taking economic and environmental concerns into account — to find the optimal procedure. Other papers were presented on various decommissioning technologies and waste handling, including industrial toxic waste as well as radioactive waste.

In Track 2, "Radwaste and spent fuel treatment of decommissioned submarines and their effect on the environment - monitoring and rehabilitation of contaminated units and sites," the principal focus was on spent fuel management as the main potential danger for the immediate future.

Accelerated spent fuel unloading from retired reactors were outlined by P Steblin (Nerpa shipyard), Ye Goriglejan (Rubin Design Bureau), A Dunaev (Zvezdochka) and S Golovinsky (Murmansk Shipping Co), or its safe storage in submarine reactors — P Smirnov (retired submarine officer).

During technical tours, the dismantling and radwaste treatment techniques used and being developed in Russia were explained. In some cases, the methods used were superior to foreign techniques for the dismantling of large-scale ship constructions and the management of spent nuclear fuel and radwaste.

Legislation and regulations

Papers on legislation concerning submarine decommissioning were presented by N Yurasov (Russian Navy), O Kovalevich (Gosatomnadzor Science & Technology Centre), and G Nikishin (Ecology-Prometey Research Institute) — Track 3 of the seminar. Environmental safety at every stage of the withdrawal of a nuclear submarine from the Russian Navy was covered in these presentations.

Several papers also highlighted the need to develop the process of transferal from military to civilian personnel. Also needed is clarification of the distribution of responsibilities and liabilities of the many different Russian organisations that are involved in submarine decommissioning.

Track 4, "Principles of providing radiation and biological safety during decommissioning," dealt mainly with health and safety issues. The findings of many years of observation show that concentrations of radioactive aerosols during decommissioning do not exceed control levels. For the last ten years there has been no increase in professional illnesses. P Kolosov from the Central Sanitary and Medical Hospital said that the instances of cancer in the Archangelsk region and town of Severodvinsk were no higher than the national rate.

International cooperation

There was a lot of emphasis on international cooperation for ensuring environmental safety during Russian nuclear submarine decommissioning.

It is well known that the world community benefited from the end of the Cold War, but it is Russia who has carried the main burden of its after-effects. International financial and technological aid reduces the pressure on the Russian economy, and helps to accelerate decommissioning of submarines, surface nuclear ships, technological support vessels and on-shore storage facilities. The plenary report by V Akhunov and V Lebedev (Minatom) said that, as a consequence, radiation and environmental safety both in the northwest and far east regions of Russia — in fact, the whole world — is improved.

The results of international projects on submarine decommissioning and related issues were also presented at the seminar. Russian specialists carried out the projects with financial and technological support by foreign collaborators. These projects demonstrate the effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Europe, USA, ISTC, and Japan in ensuring nuclear, radiation and environmental safety.

In particular, D Rudolf from the USA informed the participants of the results of cooperation between Russia, USA and Norway within the AMEC programme; U Meyer, ISTC, presented the projects funded by ISTC; J Naegele, EU, TACIS programme projects; E Downing of the UK reported on the cooperation plans of Minatom and the British Ministry of Trade and Industry in this field; and K Watson, UK, — the results of Russian-Japanese projects performed at the far eastern shipyard Zvezda.

A number of reports highlighted that decommissioning projects present danger not only to Russia but also to other countries. The danger of 1st and 2nd generation submarines to be decommissioned was noted by K Popov (Minatom) N Kalistratov (Zvezdochka), Yu Shulgun (Zvezda). The main concerns are: non-proliferation of fissile materials and nuclear weapons; radiation safety of decommissioned nuclear vessels; and prevention of radionuclides from being released into the environment during handling of spent nuclear fuel, reactor compartments, solid and liquid radwaste and toxic industrial waste.

Challenges ahead

Several urgent issues remain:

• Development and creation of the transport and technological plans of facilities for long-term storage of one-compartment reactor units at the on-shore sites.

• Construction of special ships for transport of spent fuel casks and radwaste containers.

• Refurbishment of the existing waste storage facilities and construction of disposal sites.

• Casks for radwaste, temporary storage facilities, road and railway equipment and facilities for shipping.

• Restoration of available on-shore technological facilities, such as Andreev Bay.

• Decommissioning of floating technological vessels, beginning with the ship Lepse.

• Plants for industrial toxic waste management.

• Use of modern dosimetry and environment monitoring equipment.

• Improvement of legal and regulatory requirements.

• Retraining of the retired military personnel due to Russian Army reduction.

The next meeting will be held in the far east region of Russia at the beginning of September 2002. It will cover decommissioning and also nuclear energy development in the region, including floating nuclear plants, the first of which is being constructed in Severodvinsk.
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