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Russia: Nuclear Barge Poses Potential Risk

  • Ben Partridge



London, 10 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A British Foreign Office report says a 15,000-ton barge in Murmansk harbor is a potential hazard because it is a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from Soviet-era icebreakers.

Environmentalists fear that if the 60-year-old vessel sank, or if its hull rusted away, it could contaminate Murmansk harbor and pose a possible health risk to the northwest Russian city of 500,000.

The deteriorating state of the barge, the Lepse, is highlighted in the report published to coincide with a nuclear clean-up seminar in London last Thursday.

The seminar, attended by Murmansk Governor Yuri Yevdokimov and Russian Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Nicolai Egorov, discussed how the international community can help Moscow tackle the environmental threat posed by radioactive waste in northwest Russia and the Urals.

Northwest Russia is said to be the location of some 300 nuclear reactors, and thousands of spent nuclear fuel elements, many on board submarines no longer used. An area around the Mayak reprocessing plant, near Chelyabinsk in the Urals, is also a potential hazard.

One of the biggest challenges is posed by Lepse, built in 1936, sunk during World War Two, and later refloated and used as a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from icebreakers until 1981.

The Foreign Office briefing paper says the Lepse was used to store nuclear fuel elements from the Soviet icebreaker, Lenin, after its nuclear reactor overheated in the mid-1960s.

The report says that due to expansion from the overheating, the nuclear fuel elements were too large to fit safely into the Lepse's two storage tanks, but, in the reports words, "they were hammered in anyway."

The report says the Lepse "contains 642 bundles of used fuel rods, of which 60-70 are damaged and cannot be retrieved by conventional means."

Part of the Lepse was encased in concrete in an unsuccessful bid to prevent radiation leaks. Because spent fuel cannot at present be removed from the barge, maintenance has been inadequate. The report adds: "Corrosion inside the cargo holds is a serious problem."

A nuclear safety expert, who attended the London seminar, and spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said: "Because there is no access any longer to the holds of the barge, all maintenance has been carried out on the exterior of the vessel."

He added: "So they have been adding layers of paint to the outside of the hull, but have done nothing about the inside. As a result, the vessel is rotting from the inside out." The solution, he said, is to remove the spent nuclear fuel and decommission the vessel. But this task needs to "be brought forward rather urgently."

Murmansk Governor Yevdokimov, one of a 10-member Russian delegation to the seminar, is said to take the problem "very seriously" and is described as one of "the driving forces" behind the clean-up campaign. The Scandinavian countries are also concerned because of their close proximity to northwest Russia.

In 1995, Russia, the U.S., France, Norway and the European Commission decided to coordinate efforts to find a long-term solution. In 1996, an advisory committee on the Lepse was formed. A study drawn up under the EU's program of aid to Russia and CIS countries looked at ways of decommissioning the Lepse. It recommended building a steel shield on the barge roof, and using remote cutting by robots to retrieve fuel elements. The radioactive elements could then be transferred into stainless steel canisters and transported from Murmansk harbor for safe storage ashore.

The first stage of decommissioning alone would cost $10 million. The international Lepse advisory committee has collected almost enough pledges of funding. But Russia first has to sign an accord which grants tax-free status to equipment imported for the work, and indemnifies contractors against any accidents.

The London seminar, which brought together nuclear and waste management experts, as well as experts working with Russian authorities, agreed that the international community has a duty to help Moscow cope with the Lepse and other Soviet-era nuclear problems.

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