The unloading of used nuclear fuel from Russian storage facilities at the former onshore technical base of the Navy in in Andreeva Bay near Murmansk is planned to be fully completed by 2027, state nuclear corporation Rosatom said on 6 August. The Andreeva Bay storage facility established in the 1960s, is the largest such facility in Northwest Russia and one of the biggest in the world. To date more than 30% of the fuel has been removed from Andreeva Bay and sent for processing. Nuclear waste management company RosRAO (part of Rosatom) began unloading spent nuclear fuel from the Andreeva Bay base in May 2017.

Rosatom noted that the radiation situation in the building where the main storage was located significantly improved in 2020. "When Rosatom began to work on the Andreeva Bay, about 40% of the base and technical area were contaminated with radionuclides. Now the area is mostly cleaned up," Rosatom said, adding that the schedule for unloading used fuel is determined in accordance with safety requirements – risks for personnel, the population of adjacent territories and for the environment are excluded as much as possible. From Andreeva Bay, the fuel is transported to FSUE Atomflot, and from there it is delivered by special trains to PA Mayak in the Chelyabinsk Region for reprocessing.

Experts from international environmental organisation Bellona, ​​which are conducting their own environmental nuclear project and monitoring the situation in Andreeva Bay, positively assess the work being done. In their opinion, some of the problems with the accumulated "Soviet" legacy have already been either resolved or are in the process of being liquidated. A modern complex for long-term storage of reactor compartments of nuclear submarines and parts of civil nuclear fleet ships has already been created; in Andreeva Bay, the dismantled nuclear submarines are being systematically unloaded and sent for reprocessing.

Andrei Zolotkov, head of Bellona’s offices in Murmansk, told TASS that at present all territories where SNF storage facilities are located are well guarded, there are qualified personnel, and although potentially dangerous works are regularly carried out on them, they have no serious impact on the environment outside the perimeter.

“When I saw with my own eyes the state of the facility in Andreeva Bay in 1990, and then more than 25 years later, we can undoubtedly talk about progress in this direction. <…> There is a hope that, despite various political conflicts in the modern world, Murmansk region, SevRAO (part of RosRAO) and Rosatom will continue international cooperation, because there is the next goal ahead – disposal of sunken and dumped nuclear hazardous objects in the Arctic seas," Zolotkov said.

The Andreeva Bay base was built to service nuclear submarines. The storage facility  contained about 22,000 used fuel assemblies in three containers, which corresponds to the contents of 100 nuclear reactors. It also stored radioactive waste from nuclear submarines, and the base hosted surface ships with nuclear power plants and ships to support the operation of nuclear submarines.

Following an accident in Building 5 in 1982, water leakage from one of the pools for spent fuel caused widespread contamination. In 1988-89, the majority of fuel from Building 5 was transferred to the three dry storage tanks at the site and the building was abandoned. The base was closed in 1992.

However, the radiation situation significantly deteriorated. To remove waste for reprocessing, it was necessary to improve the radiation situation on the territory and in the storage facilities but preparatory work was stopped in the early 1990s. It was resumed only in 2001, after the transfer of storage bases to Minatom. In April 2017, the construction and commissioning of infrastructure facilities for the management of the fuel and its transportation for subsequent reprocessing were completed and work began the following month.

However, a significant volume of radionuclides remained in the sludge at the bottom of the pools and six spent fuel assemblies remained at the bottom of one of the pools in Building 5. Following a radiological survey of the storage facility, urgent repairs of the building’s roof were performed and shielding was installed.

Tackling the removal of the remaining spent fuel was complicated as the damaged assemblies required special operations. Specialised remote handling equipment had to be manufactured. After tests on a mock-up facility the removal was successfully completed by the end of October 2019.

The assemblies are being retrieved, packaged and removed from the site by SevRAO under an international initiative financed by the Nuclear Window of the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP). The Nuclear Window is part of the NDEP's Support Fund, set up in July 2002 by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to pool contributions for the improvement of the environment in northwestern Russia. The EBRD-managed fund, managed has received €165m in contributions, with funding from the European Union and Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands Norway and the UK.

The EBRD is the only international financial institution with expertise in managing nuclear decommissioning funds. The Bank’s engagement started in 1993, with urgent safety upgrades of nuclear power plants. Today, the EBRD manages six other nuclear decommissioning funds in addition to the NDEP Nuclear Window, including the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, which is its biggest undertaking.