Dismantling of Nuclear Submarines
“In the early 1990s, dozens of nuclear submarines with spent nuclear fuel still in their reactors were just part of the fleet in various naval bases. They represented a great terrorist risk as well as a potential threat to the environment…it was an environmental risk for the entire north-west of Russia and even to the Arctic region as a whole”
– Nikolay Kalistratov, Director General of the Zvyozdochka Shipyard in July 2006
The Russian Federation inherited a legacy of nearly 200 nuclear powered submarines following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the following decade, the Russia Federation struggled to dismantle these submarines and to secure their nuclear fuel. Many of these submarines had already spent years rotting away at their berths.
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With the attack on the United States in September 2001, there was an urgent need to examine the risks of potential nuclear terrorism. At the 2002 G8 leaders meeting in Kananaskis, under Canada’s leadership, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction was initiated. As an integral component of this initiative, the Russian Federation specifically requested the international community’s assistance in advancing the elimination of its nuclear submarine legacy with the aim of eliminating the problem by 2010.
Before the 2002 Kananaskis meeting, Japan and the United States had already been assisting Russia with nuclear submarine elimination under existing bilateral arrangements. Following the creation of the Global Partnership in 2002, Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and Italy joined this effort. Canada has been actively engaged in dismantling decommissioned Russian nuclear powered submarines since August 2004. It is expected that Russia’s nuclear submarine legacy issue will be resolved by 2012. The total cost of dismantling all of Russia’s decommissioned nuclear submarines will reach several billion dollars.
The majority of Russian nuclear submarines have two pressurized water reactors that use enriched uranium fuel. Elimination of the Russian nuclear submarine legacy reduces both terrorism and proliferation threats associated with this fuel. Additionally, this initiative removes the significant threat these old nuclear submarines pose to the fragile environments of the Arctic and Pacific regions that Canada shares with Russia.
Dismantling decommissioned Russian nuclear powered submarines (NPS) was listed among the four priority concerns enumerated by G8 leaders when they launched the Global Partnership at the 2002 G8 Summit in Kananaskis.
Reducing the proliferation, environmental and security risks posed by Russia’s decommissioned nuclear submarines and the spent nuclear fuel contained within (SNF) them benefits Canada and the international community at large.
Canada, for its part, will contribute up to $1 billion to the Global Partnership over 10 years. The first portion of Canadian funding was announced in advance of the 2003 G8 Summit in Evian, France, and those projects are currently being implemented. Included in this first announcement was a $32 million Canadian contribution to the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership, a program of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to address SNF and radioactive waste issues in northern Russia related to Russia’s nuclear submarine operations.
The conclusion of a bilateral agreement with Russia at the Sea Island G8 Summit in June 2004 enabled Canada to conduct projects directly with Russia. This enabled the second series of Canadian projects to be enacted just a few weeks later: $120 million for dismantling 12 decommissioned nuclear powered submarines in Russia’s north through 2008.
This initial commitment for dismantling twelve submarines was completed on schedule in March 2008. Twenty-four nuclear reactors from the twelve NPS were de-fuelled at the Federal State Unitary Engineering Enterprise Ship Repair Centre Zvyozdochka in Severodvinsk. Eleven Victor Class NPS were fully dismantled. The twelfth de-fuelled submarine was a Typhoon Class strategic submarine, the largest submarine in the world. This submarine was dismantled in cooperation with Russia and the United States Canada led the de-fuelling of the submarine’s twin reactors, the United States funded the elimination of the submarine’s strategic missile launcher system, and Russia dismantled the remaining parts of the submarine.
In 2006, Canada and Russia completed a world first by transporting two fuelled nuclear submarines as dry cargo on the deck of a specialized heavy lift ship. A Dutch maritime company, Dockwise, was contracted to transport the submarines. Because of the submarines’ poor technical state, a normal tow was considered unsafe and could have been a threat to the environment. The transportation of these submarines as dry cargo eliminated the potential environmental risks associated with a tow. The submarines were loaded at a naval base near Murmansk, in northern Russia, 850 kilometres away from the Zvyozdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk, northern Russia, where they were to be de-fuelled and dismantled.
During monitoring visits to the Zvyozdochka shipyard, between 2004 and 2008, members of the Canadian team devoted personal time to assisting a local orphanage. Leveraging funds from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the team installed new laundry equipment in 2006, essential equipment for an orphanage hosting nearly 250 children. In 2006, the team also successfully transported a large crate of dentistry equipment, including a new dental chair and sterilizing equipment, from Canada to Severodvinsk using donated cargo space on a freight ship. This equipment was installed in 2007 by dental technicians from the Canadian Forces Dental Service. Both projects will have an important impact on the health and well-being of the children.
Canada initiated new submarine projects in 2008, worth $56 million. Of this commitment, $24.6 million will be used to dismantle two decommissioned nuclear submarines in Severodvinsk in northwest Russia. The remaining funds are for projects in the Russian Far East, including $12.5 million for a railway upgrade to facilitate the elimination of all spent nuclear fuel from the Far East region. The final $19.2 million will be used for transporting two nuclear powered submarines (carried out in 2009), using the same heavy lift vessel used in 2006, and the subsequent de-fuelling of the four reactors.
For further information on the progress of the dismantling of nuclear powered Russian submarines, please visit our Nuclear Submarine Dismantlement Progress Web page.
Dismantling decommissioned nuclear submarines is a lengthy and expensive process consisting of 13 broad steps.
After a submarine is docked, the spent nuclear fuel must be removed and shipped using a special heavily armed train to a processing facility in the Ural Mountains. Following the de-fuelling, the contaminated reactor compartments are removed and towed to a special shore-based storage facility, where they will remain for several decades. After the levels of radioactivity have diminished, they will finally be disposed of safely. In parallel to the removal of the reactor compartment, the remaining shell of the submarine is scraped and recycled.
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