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Russia: Moscow Proposes Plan To Scrap Foreign Nuclear Submarines

  • Claire Bigg

Russia’s Atomic Energy Agency has floated the idea of dismantling foreign decommissioned nuclear submarines on Russian territory. According to the plan, spent nuclear fuel would be unloaded from the submarines in the country of origin. Russian environmentalists, however, are convinced the nuclear fuel will end up in Russia. They warn that Russia could turn into an international radioactive dump.

Moscow, 19 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev said on 17 April that Russia could soon help the West dispose of its decommissioned nuclear submarines.

According to Rumyantsev, Russia will need only five more years to dispose of its 80 nuclear submarines remaining from the Cold War era. After this, Rumyantsev said, Russia will be ready to dismantle foreign nuclear submarines.
"This is clearly not enough to process, for instance, Russia’s spent nuclear fuel. Russia is becoming an international dump for radioactive material from the whole world.”

He stressed that cooperation with Russia will save foreign states a considerable amount of money. Russia receives $100 million every year from the United States, Canada, Japan, and the European Union to build and maintain nuclear submarine dismantling facilities.

Ivan Safranchuk is the director of the Center for Defense Information in Moscow. He said Russia is now beginning to think about how these facilities might be used in the future. “Obviously Russia is looking for ways to keep its facilities running in five or seven years when the Soviet fleet will have been disposed of," Safranchuk said. "Why should France, China, or India build their own superfluous, expensive decommissioning facilities when they can use Russia’s?”

These countries do not have the technology to dismantle nuclear submarines and could possibly take an interest in Rumyantsev’s proposal.

In 2001, Russia adopted a law allowing foreign spent nuclear fuel to be stored on its territory. At the moment, Russia only refines fuel from its reactors built abroad.

But Safranchuk does not exclude that Russia could later offer to store used nuclear fuel from foreign submarines: “In the future, if Russia puts into practice its idea of storing spent nuclear fuel from [foreign] nuclear plants, it could also decide to store fuel from submarines.”

Rumyantsev’s declaration has caused dismay among Russian environmentalists, who say the nuclear fuel will eventually end up in Russia.

Vladimir Chuprov, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace’s Moscow office, says dismantling foreign nuclear submarines will pave the way for Russia to store nuclear waste.

Chuprov, who calls Rumyantsev’s comments scandalous, says the Russian government is backing an international campaign to create massive radioactive dumps in Russia: “The aim of this campaign, including the nuclear submarines, is to bring spent nuclear fuel to Russia and leave it here forever, just like it is being done now with spent nuclear fuel from Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine.”

Russian environmentalists largely agree that it will take Russia well over five years to get rid of its decommissioned submarines.

Greenpeace estimates that Russia still has some 100 idle submarines containing nuclear fuel, with only up to five submarines dismantled every year. The majority of these submarines are located in the Murmansk area and on the country’s Pacific coast.

Chuprov also warns that Russia lacks the technical facilities to process even its own nuclear fuel and that foreign nuclear waste would have to be stored: “Today, there is one single facility, in the south of the Urals, which can process 400 tons of spent nuclear fuel per year. This is clearly not enough to process, for instance, Russia’s spent nuclear fuel. Russia is becoming an international dump for radioactive material from the whole world.”

Environmental rights groups have repeatedly accused the Mayak plant, near the city of Chelyabinsk in the Urals, of releasing massive quantities of radioactive materials in the atmosphere and the water.

The Chelyabinsk region is often referred to as one of the most contaminated spots on the planet.

Incidences of cancer and birth defects in the region have risen by over 20 percent in the past three decades. A large number of men and women of child-bearing age in Chelyabinsk have been found to be sterile.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​