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Bellona Report nr. 2:96. Written by: Thomas Nilsen, Igor Kudrik and Alexandr Nikitin.

The Russian Northern Fleet

[NFL Updated] [On to The Northern Fleet] [Back to Preface] [References] [Content]

In 1996 the Russian Navy celebrates its 300th anniversary. Nuclear submarines have been in service with the Northern Fleet for nearly 40 years. This report describes the problems that the Russian Northern Fleet is experiencing with its nuclear powered vessels and with the storage of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste that the operation of these vessels generates. The Kola peninsula and Severodvinsk have the highest concentration of nuclear reactors, active and derelict, in the world. The cold war arms race went too fast for authorities to plan what to do with decommissioned submarines and the nuclear waste. The present generation must now handle the clean-up efforts. This report describes the challenges that we face.

Chapter 1 gives a historic summary of the Northern Fleet, from 1899 until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991. Efforts have been devoted to showing the effects of the social, political and economic situation in the former Soviet Union/Russia on the Northern Fleet over the past five years. The last part of the chapter covers the command structure and areas of responsibility within the Russian Navy and in other institutions related to the running of nuclear powered vessels.

Chapter 2 describes the different types of submarines which are, or have been, in operation with the Northern Fleet. Much attention is given to the development of submarine classes and reactor design, as this is crucial to understanding the inherent dangers and the costs, both of operating and decommissioning the various types of vessels as well as the amount of nuclear waste that is generated by running them.

Chapter 3 covers the special service ships and tenders in service with the Northern Fleet. These vessels are used for refuelling the nuclear submarines. There is an extensive transport of nuclear fuel and waste around the Kola peninsula and in the Severodvinsk area. Most of the service ships are in poor technical condition.

Chapter 4 gives a geographical survey of the naval bases that serve nuclear submarines and nuclear powered surface vessels. These bases are situated from Zapadnaya Litsa in the west to Gremikha in the east. The naval bases also contain the Northern Fleet's largest temporary storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste. All of the listed repositories are full. Their poor technical condition highlights the need for rapid measures.

Chapter 5 gives a description of naval shipyards in Severodvinsk and on the Kola Peninsula. Some yards do not fall under Northern Fleet command, but are included because they play a part in the maintenance of the active nuclear submarines or in the decommissioning of inactive submarines.

Chapter 6 outlines the process of decommissioning nuclear submarines. Emphasis is placed on the problems associated with the storage of submarines which have not yet been defuelled. An official Russian programme for the decommission of nuclear submarines has been developed, and the difficulties encountered by the shipyards entrusted with this work is described. Plans for the long term storage of reactor compartments are also presented.

Chapter 7 gives a summary of the methods utilised in the removal and renewal of nuclear fuel in the submarine reactors, including transport and temporary storage. After some years, the fuel elements are retrieved from temporary storage and re-embarked on the special service ships for transfer to rail. Eventually the fuel elements are transported to the reprocessing plant RT-1 in Mayak. The economic implications of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel are also described.

Chapter 8 addresses nuclear submarine accidents. Special emphasis is placed on those incidents where nuclear submarines have sunk or where a partial or complete meltdown of the reactor has occurred with the subsequent release of radioactive material.

Russia is not alone in operating nuclear submarines. In the appendix, a survey of all active nuclear submarines of the United States, Great Britain, France and China is given. India is also known to have initiated a nuclear submarine programme.

Even though each chapter covers a specific issue, it is important to keep in mind its context. One of the most serious problems is the lack of regional storage and treatment facilities for radioactive waste. This waste is deposited haphazardly throughout the various navy yards and bases. The establishment of a regional storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, reactor compartments, and liquid and solid nuclear waste is a necessary precondition for carrying out the decommissioning of submarines in an environmentally viable manner. Bellona has not addressed the issue of the location of such a facility. The choices would appear to be between Novaya Zemlya and the coast of the Kola Peninsula. A recurrent theme in this report is the lack of civilian control over the different Northern Fleet nuclear facilities leading to a disregard of international recommendations concerning the handling of nuclear waste. Further planning for the location of a regional nuclear waste storage facility must be placed under the supervision of a Russian civilian agency.

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Nuclear reactors of the World

There are five countries in the world today that operate nuclear-powered naval vessels: Russia, the United States, Great Britain, France and China. The submarines of the Western countries typically have only one reactor on board, whereas most Russian submarines are powered by two reactors. Excluding Russia, these nations have 132 nuclear submarines containing the same number of reactors.[1]

The Russian Northern Fleet operates 67 nuclear submarines with a total of 115 reactors between them, and two nuclear powered battle cruisers, each of which has two reactors. In addition, there are 52 nuclear submarines with a total of 101 reactors which have been retired from service, but that still contain their nuclear fuel.[2] Taking into account the approximately 100 reactors amongst the nuclear submarines and nuclear powered surface ships already in service or laid up with the Russian Pacific Fleet, there is a total of 476 naval military reactors, of which almost half belong to the Russian Northern Fleet.

All five of the countries that already possess nuclear submarines are continuing to develop and build new vessels. Russia is building three new Project 885 nuclear submarines (Severodvinsk class), and another nuclear powered battle cruiser is scheduled to be delivered to the Northern Fleet in the course of 1996. In the United States, there are nine nuclear submarines and two aircraft carriers being built. Great Britain is building seven nuclear submarines, while France is developing four nuclear submarines and a new aircraft carrier. China plans to build two entirely new classes of nuclear submarines. India also has plans to build nuclear powered submarines and has entered into a cooperative venture with Russia to develop the reactors for the new class of submarines. India will thereby become the sixth of the world's nations to be in possession of nuclear submarines.[3] (See Appendix I for further information about the nuclear powered vessels of other countries.)

The Murmansk Shipping Company has eight nuclear icebreakers and a nuclear powered container ship from its base in Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula. Between the nine vessels, there are a total of 15 nuclear reactors.[4] There are four nuclear power plants in operation at Kola Nuclear Power Plant in Polyarny Zori. Hence the Kola Peninsula along with Severodvinsk on the White Sea, has the greatest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. There is a total of 240 nuclear reactors in this region, with 236 naval reactors on board various submarines and ships and four land-based nuclear reactors at Kola Nuclear Power Plant.

There are 442 reactors in operation at civilian nuclear power plants in 30 different countries around the world.[5] In addition to these, there are a further 292 research and experimental reactors spread over 58 countries.[6] There are also approximately ten other active reactors in the world in use for the production of weapons grade nuclear materials. Four of these are located in Siberia.[7] Thus there is a total of 1 225 operating nuclear reactors in the world. The Russian Northern Fleet accounts for 18 % of the world's total nuclear reactors.

Country Submarine Nuclear reactors Inactive submarine reactors with fuel Military surface ship reactors Icebreaker reactors Nuclear power plant reactors Research reactors
Russia 215 101 8 15 36 22
USA 99 - 20 - 109 73
UK 16 - - - 35 8
China 6 - - - 3 13
France 11 - - - 56 19
Other - - - - 203 157
Totalt 347 101 28 15 442 292

Table 1: Nuclear Reactors of the World.

[NFL Updated] [On to The Northern Fleet] [Back to Preface] [References] [Content]


[1] Jane's Fighting Ships 1995-96, 98th edition. Return
[2] Kværner Moss Technology A.S., Disposal of Russian Nuclear Submarines, January 19, 1996. Return
[3] Jane's Fighting Ships 1995-96, 98th edition. Return
[4] T. Nilsen and N. Bøhmer, Bellona Report No. 1 - 1994. Return
[5] Nuclear Engineering International, World Nuclear Industry Handbook 1996, Surrey 1996. Return
[6] Rolf O. Lingjærde, Kjernekraft Status og Utvikling 1995, Institute of Energy Technology, November 1995. Return
[7] Viking O. Eriksen, Kjernevåpen - Hva Nå? and N. Bøhmer and T. Nilsen, Reprocessing Plants in Siberia, Bellona Working Paper No. 4 - 1995. Return

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CD-version, updated 1997-09-28

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