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

The Russian Northern Fleet
Handling of spent fuel assemblies

Table of Contents

[NFL Updated] [On to accidents] [Back to decommissioning] [References] [Content]

Handling of spent fuel assemblies

7.1 Organisation and Responsibility

In accordance with the "closed cycle" which was the policy of the former Soviet Union, the expectation is that all spent nuclear fuel should be reprocessed and used again. Behind this policy lay the expectation of a uranium shortage in the future. In reprocessing procedures, the spent nuclear fuel assembly is dissolved in an acid solution, and uranium and plutonium is separated from the other elements. This uranium can then be used in the production of new fuel assemblies. To that end, a resolution was passed in the middle of the 1960s to build a production facility at the Mayak Chemical Combine for the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. This was the beginning of the RT-1 reprocessing facility.[527]

The first technological system for the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel both from VVER type pressurised water reactors (nuclear power plants) and from naval reactors (nuclear icebreakers and submarines) was started in 1976. Spent fuel assemblies were removed from the reactors and forwarded to the RT-1 reprocessing facility on special railroad cars. In 1973, the first specially modified train from the Northern Fleet consisting of nine cars, ran from Murmansk to Mayak.[528]

Because the storage facilities for spent fuel assemblies located at Andreeva Bay and at Gremikha are not connected to the railway, there were two steps in the process of forwarding spent fuel assemblies from the submarine reactors to the reprocessing facility at Mayak:

  1. Establishment of a loading area whereby containers of spent nuclear fuel could be transferred from Northern Fleet service ships and transported to the railway;
  2. Preparation of service ships to carry the containers of spent nuclear fuel by sea from Andreeva Bay and Gremikha to the transfer loading area.

Four locations were considered as possible transfer loading points: Severodvinsk (the harbour area), Severomorsk (the military building battalions pier near the industrial area of the ZhBI factory), Trifonov Creek, and Murmansk (Nizhnaya Rosta). The latter was finally selected (the surface storage area of Military Department 31326) because of the existence of a second railway track.[529]

An added benefit of the location was the presence of qualified technical expertise, for this was also the location of Sevmorput Shipyard Military Department 31326. Furthermore, Nizhnaya Rosta was situated close to Base 92 (today known as RTP Atomflot) where the Murmansk Shipping Company moored its nuclear icebreaker Lenin and was awaiting delivery of several more.[530] This company too would need a transfer loading area to receive spent nuclear fuel assemblies from the icebreaker reactors.

Barge-4 was the vessel selected to transport the containers of spent nuclear fuel over water. This barge lacked an engine and had a displacement of 600 tonnes. Barge-4 contained storage compartments, one of which was also equipped to store 39 containers of spent fuel assemblies. Furthermore, Barge-4 had a dosimeter reading station, sanitary facilities for the ship's personnel and cabins for a military crew of nine. Barge-4 was dumped in the Kara Sea in 1988.[531] Operations to forward spent nuclear fuel from the bases to the reprocessing facility at Mayak were organised in the following manner:

  1. Empty containers were first secured from BTB (a land-based technical facility) and forwarded to Andreeva Bay and Gremikha. At Andreeva Bay and Gremikha the containers were loaded with spent nuclear fuel assemblies which had been stored for a minimum of three years.[532]
  2. The spent fuel assemblies were examined, and documents were issued confirming that they were in condition acceptable for transportation. The containers were then sealed and decontaminated to permissible levels for transport. They were subsequently hoisted aboard Barge-4 and transported along the Kola coast to Pier No. 20 at Military Department 31326 at Rosta in the Kola Fjord.
  3. At the same time, a special train arrived from Mayak with a consignment of empty railroad transport container cars. The cars were shunted one at a time onto a side track at Military Division 31236 to transfer the transport containers from the ship to the train. The remaining cars were stationed on the service tracks of Sevmorput Shipyard.
  4. The loading transfer points on the territory of Military Department 31326 changed according to a schedule and the transfer of containers followed it. Empty containers were transferred to the barge while those that were loaded were lifted onto the specially constructed railroad cars destined for Mayak.
  5. The actual work of transferring the containers was done by military personnel from the loading facility. Assisting operators (such as the crane operators. mechanics, etc.) were drawn from civilian personnel working for Military Department 31326.

The technical department of the Northern Fleet was generally in charge of the work. The process of transferring the transport containers from the barges to a special train required 7-8 working days on average. Between five and ten special trains per year were handled,[533] with the first special train going from Murmansk to Mayak in 1973. This train had nine cars. In later years there were trains with as many as 22 cars.[534] Up until 1994, there was no financial arrangement between the Northern Fleet and Mayak Chemical Combine. Responsibility was divided between the two concerns in the following manner:

The schedule of the special trains was determined by a special committee from Minatom. Minatom was also responsible for co-ordinating the transfer loading procedures. In the period from 1973 to 1994, at least 115 special trains made the journey from Rosta to Mayak, although the number of trains per year gradually decreased. In the period from 1973 to 1983 there were 58 trains. An overview of the number of special transport trains from 1984 to 1994 is given in the table.[536]

According to local sources and people who took part in the operations, every step associated with the transport of spent nuclear fuel was strictly monitored by the Northern Fleet security authorities. Throughout the time that spent nuclear fuel was transported through Murmansk there were no breaches of radiation safety rules or pollution of the reloading area, even though there were certain problems now and then.[538] Though the special trains from Rosta to Mayak ran on the regular Russian railway network, special safety measures were in effect and the Mayak trains were slower than ordinary trains.

7.2 Russian Submarine Fuel

The fuel assemblies for Russian nuclear submarines powered by pressurised water reactors are manufactured at the Machine-Building Plant in Electrosal outside of Moscow. The fuel assemblies for liquid metal cooled reactors (submarines of type 705 (Alpha class) and type 645-ZhTS) were manufactured at Ulbinsky Metallurgical Factory at Ust-Kamenogorsk in Kazakhstan.[539]

The reactor core of a Russian nuclear submarine has between 248 and 252 fuel assemblies, depending upon the type of reactor. Most Russian nuclear submarines have two reactors. Each fuel assembly consists of several tens of fuel rods. The design of these fuel rods varies from the traditional round rods to advanced flat plates.[540] Most of the uranium fuel is clad in steel or zirconium.[541]

The enrichment of fuel in pressurised water reactors varies from 21 percent of 235U in first and second generation nuclear submarines to 43-45 percent of 235U in third generation nuclear submarines.[542] Certain pressurised water reactors have fuel with even higher enrichment. For example, the Pacific Fleet's nuclear-powered communication ships of type 1941-Kapusta class have reactor cores enriched to 55-90 percent of 235U. The enrichment of fuel assemblies in liquid metal cooled reactors can be as much as 90 percent.[543] Only fuel from submarines with pressurised water reactors is stored at Andreeva Bay. Hence the enrichment of most of the fuel in the dry storage facilities does not exceed 45 percent of 235U. Spent nuclear fuel from submarines with liquid metal cooled reactors is stored at Gremikha. Even so, it is worth noting that there is a submarine of type 705-Alpha class laid up at Zapadnaya Litsa with fuel still remaining inside its reactor. This is also true of a reactor compartment in Severodvinsk.

The reactor core in third generation nuclear submarines consists of fuel assemblies with different degrees of enrichment. The fuel assemblies towards the centre of the reactor core are enriched to 21 percent 235U, while those near the edge of the reactor core are enriched up to 45 percent 235U. The reactor of a third generation nuclear submarine contains about 115 kg of 235U. Second generation nuclear submarine reactors contain a total of 350 kg of uranium, of which 70 kg are 235U.[544] A typical reactor core in the first generation of nuclear submarines has about 50 kg of 235U of a total 250 kg of uranium. This is reportedly also the amount of uranium present in each of the reactors that were dumped into the Kara Sea while still containing their nuclear fuel.

7.3 Transport containers [545]

In accordance with Minatom and Navy rules, TUK ("transport packing container") containers are used to transport spent nuclear fuel. Each TUK consists of two parts: a protective cover (the outward container) and a closed cylinder (internal casing). TUK-11 and TUK-12 containers were used for all reloading of fuel from nuclear vessels until 1993, and in 1994 they were replaced by the TUK-18 container. The TUK-11 and TUK-12 containers were manufactured in 1971-72 by the Uralmash factory in Ekaterinburg. The main difference between the two types of containers is in the height. Each container held one holster in which seven fuel assemblies had been packed. (The cylinders for Murmansk Shipping Company held three to five fuel assemblies). The containers were made of stainless steel, weighed 8 850 kg each and were 327 mm thick. The closed cylinders were also made of stainless steel, and weighed 260 to 300 kg when fully equipped. The TUK-11 and TUK-12 containers were transported on TK-4 railroad cars, each of which could hold four containers. In this way, a special train of nine or ten cars could transport one reactor core; a special train of 18-20 cars could take a maximum of two reactor cores.

Photo Photo, 29 kb.
Containers of spent fuel assemblies are loaded into TUK-18 railway cars for transport to the reprocessing facility RT-1 in Mayak. This picture is from the civilian nuclear icebreaker base Atomflot in Murmansk.

Illustration Illustration, 17 kb.Illustration Illustration, 5 kb.
The drawing shows placing of containers with used nuclear fuel at the storage facility of Andreeva Bay.

Photo Photo 30 kb
The unloading of container with used nuclear fuel from service ship project 2020 Malina class takes place at on of Severodvinsk Shipyards. This operation is considered as potentially dangerous since there is a high probability of a spontanious chain reaction in case of an accident.

Photo Photo 30 kb.
Container with used nuclear fuel is transferred from the service vessel to one of the special wagons. In Severodvinsk the loading operations are conducted by crane which has poor technical condition, so most of the time it is under repair. On the background there are four transport containers for nuclear fuel.

Illustration Illustration, 6 kb.Illustration Illustration, 6 kb.
The drawing shows how transport-container type 12 is placed on the lorry «Belaz».

In 1993 the TUK-11 and TUK-12 containers had become obsolete, and from 1994 onwards, TK-18 (TUK-18) containers have been exclusively used for the transport of spent naval fuel. The TK-18 containers were manufactured by the Izhorsky factory in the city of Kolpino. These too are made of stainless steel, and a single container weighs 40 tonnes with a thickness of 320 mm. Each TK-18 container holds up to seven closed cylinders, and each cylinder can take five to seven fuel assemblies. In 1989, four special railroad cars of the type TK-VG-18 were built at the Kalininsky Coach Works (now part of Mayak Chemical Combine) to transport the TK-18 containers. A TK-VG-18 car takes three TK-18 containers. The Russian Navy has 50 of these containers, half of which are owned by the Northern Fleet.[546] A special train pulling four TK-VG-18 cars with their full capacity of twelve TK-18 containers is capable of transporting two to three reactor cores.[547]

7.4 Transport Routes

From 1973 to 1984 sea transport of spent nuclear fuel assemblies went over the following routes: [548]

Map Map, 10 kb.
Map 8. Transport route for spent nuclear fuel from the Kola Peninsula to Mayak in the Southern Urals. The fuel assemblies are transported from the Kola Peninsula naval bases and from the naval yards at Severodvinsk to Murmansk on the Northern Fleet's Project 2020 - Malina class service ships, whereas they are transported from Murmansk to Mayak on TUK-18 type railroad cars.

Since 1984, as a result of the cessation of activities of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from pressurised water reactors at Gremikha, sea transport has taken place only from Andreeva Bay. Until 1978, Barge-4 was used for all sea transport of spent nuclear fuel. In 1979-1980, due to its technical condition, Barge-4 was written off from the fleet of service ships. After its decommissioning, it was filled with solid radioactive waste from the Northern Fleet and dumped in the Kara Sea.[549] Beginning in 1979, containers of spent nuclear fuel assemblies were transported on the Northern Fleet service ship Severka. This ship is a modified vessel of the Tissa class and was built in Hungary. Severka has three cargo holds and a capacity of up to 88 TUK-11 and TUK-12 containers. However, it is unsuitable for TK-18 containers, and has subsequently been laid up.[550]

Until 1993, all rail transport of spent nuclear fuel by rail originated from Murmansk. No less than a third of the spent fuel assemblies originate from Zvezdochka Shipyard in Severodvinsk. These fuel assemblies may be categorised as "cold". In an effort to reduce the number of unnecessary transfers and to accelerate the defuelling of laid up submarines, Rear Admiral E. Rogacheevy (then in charge of the technical department) proposed to transport the spent nuclear fuel directly from Severodvinsk for reprocessing. Loading the containers would take place at sea on board technical service ships of the type 2020-Malina class. The proposal was adopted in December, 1991, by the Commander in Chief of the Northern Fleet Admiral F. Gromovy (now Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy) and approved by the management of Minatom.[551] According to the specialists, a direct transfer of spent nuclear fuel to the reprocessing facility would permit the complete defuelling of all of the twelve laid up submarines in the course of three years. However, a lack of co-ordination and departmental conflicts between the local Minatom offices, city councils, factory management and the military had the result that so far, only one special train has departed for Mayak, in May 1994. Nonetheless, according to the specialists, plans for transporting spent nuclear fuel directly from Severodvinsk in the future remain unchanged.

Even greater expectations are pinned on the opening of a transport route from the base facility Nerpichya at Zapadnaya Litsa. Many knowledgeable people working on these kinds of problems consider Nerpichya to be the ideal place from which to transport containers of spent nuclear fuel, including the TK-18 containers. Nerpichya has its own wharf, a 125 tonne naval crane and railway tracks down to the wharf.[552] The railway track is not yet in use, and it is unclear when the connection will be completed.[553]

A little further out in the Litsa Fjord is the Northern Fleet's main storage facility for spent nuclear fuel. There the main problem is the lack of container ships capable of transporting TK-18 containers. It is believed that OKTB Vokshod at Sevmorput Shipyard in Murmansk is in the process of developing such a ship, and it could possibly be built at Sevmorput in 1996-97.[554]

After 1973, the use of transportcontainers of type TK-11 and TK-12 was forbidden, and the loading area for spent nuclear fuel was moved from Sevmorput Shipyard to the civilian nuclear icebreaker base Atomflot.[555] At this base there was already cranes that could handle the containers for spent nuclear fuel. Atomflot has re-constructed the storage-ship Lotta so that it can handle the new containers of TK-18 type. Lotta was build in 1961 and has 12 room for storage of 68 containers with spent nuclear fuel.[556] Three train-set loaded with spent nuclear fuel was transported away from Atomflot in 1995. About half of the spent fuel was from the Northern Fleet, while the other half was from nuclear icebreaker at Murmansk Shipping Company.[557]

7.5 Financial aspects

Over the last three to four years, the tempo at which spent nuclear fuel is transported and processed has slowed drastically.[558] This is largely due to a sharp increase in the cost of transporting and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel following a change in the billing policy of Mayak Chemical Combine. Starting from January 1, 1991, Mayak Chemical Combine required full coverage of its expenses.[559] In May, 1995, it cost the Northern Fleet and Murmansk Shipping Company 5-6 billion roubles to process two reactor cores, even though the real cost of processing that amount of fuel was 8-9 billion roubles.[560] The management of the Combine admits that the reprocessing of naval nuclear fuel represents a loss for Mayak. The extra costs are financed entirely by foreign currency earned by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from foreign nuclear power stations. Nowadays, Mayak organises a special train only after having received payment in advance from the customer, regardless of who the customer is.[561] Pointed questions are asked by the Interdepartmental Commission for Environmental Safety. Academician A. Yablokov states flatly that Russia simply lacks the necessary government level resolutions on the importance of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel as well as ecological and economical evaluations of closed and open nuclear fuel cycles.[562]

The Russian Navy lacks funds to pay for the services of Mayak Chemical Combine, and at present, this constitutes the most important reason for the drop in the rate at which spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed. Thus there is a sharp increase in the amount of spent nuclear fuel that is stored at the naval bases, including fuel that remains in the reactors of laid up submarines. Specialists and the commanders of the fleet are both greatly concerned about this situation, for in theory it will be impossible to transport all this fuel to Mayak over the course of the next 30 to 40 years. In addition to this comes the spent fuel that Mayak Chemical Combine cannot accept for reprocessing, including:

Many experts believe that about 10% of the fuel assemblies accumulating at Northern Fleet bases and shipyards cannot be reprocessed.

In addition there are also 52 nuclear submarines that have been taken out of operation in which the used fuel has not been removed from the reactor.[566] Fifty of these submarines have two reactors each, so that the total number of reactors with fuel elements is 102. As mentioned earlier, there are about 248 to 252 fuel elements in each reactor core. Many of these submarines have been taken out of operation for as long as 15 years. Because it is not possible to monitor the conditions of these fuel elements, it is impossible to tell how many of them may be damaged. Therefore, it may be possible that the amount of spent nuclear fuel that cannot be transported to RT-1 for reprocessing in the standard way is much higher than 10% as earlier assumed.

[NFL Updated] [On to accidents] [Back to decommissioning] [References] [Content]


[527] Bøhmer, N., and Nilsen, T., Reprocessing Plants in Siberia, Bellona Working Paper No. 4-1995. Return
[528] Ibid. Return
[529] Perovsky, V. A. 1995. Return
[530] Ibid. Return
[531] Nilsen, T., and Bøhmer, N., Sources of Radioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Counties, Bellona Report no.1 :1994. Return
[532] The Environmental Committee of Murmansk, Branch of Radiation Safety, Murmansk 1993. Return
[533] Murmansk Shipping Company, Dep. for nuclear Saftey, 1993. Return
[534] Bøhmer, N., and Nilsen, T., Reprocessing Plants in Siberia, Bellona Working Paper No. 4-1995. Return
[535] Ibid. Return
[536] All the figures are from Murmansk Shipping Company Dep. For Nuclear Safety, with the exeption of the year 1995. Return
[537] Severny Rabochy, 1995. Return
[538] Murmansk Shipping Company Dep. For Nuclear Safety Return
[539] Bukharin, O., and Handler, J., 1995. Return
[540] Ibid. Return
[541] Nilsen, T., and Bøhmer, N., Sources of Radioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Counties, Bellona Report no.1 :1994. Return
[542] Bukharin, O. and Handler, J., 1995. Return
[543] Ibid. Return
[544] Ibid. Return
[545] Unless othervise stated, all the information in this chapter are from Office of Technology Assesment, Nuclear waste in the Arctic and other regional impacts from Soviet nuclear contamination, 1995. Return
[546] Murmansk Shipping Companya dep. For Nuclear Safety, 1993. Return
[547] Izvestia, March 14 1995. Return
[548] Office of Technology Assessment, September 1995. Return
[549] Yablokov, A. V. Et. Al., Facts and problems related to dumping of radioactive material in the seas adjacent to the territory of the Russian Federation , 1993. Return
[550] Perovsky, V. A. 1995. Return
[551] Problems of Decommissioning of Nuclear Powered Submarines and Environmental Protection in the Northern Areas. Severodvinsk March 15 - 16, 1995. Return
[552] Murmansky Vestnik, September 2. 1995. Return
[553] Information given on a press conference at Atomflot, regarding transport of spent nuclear fuel, March 1995. Return
[554] Perovsky, V. A.., 1995. Return
[555] Informationgiven on a press conference at Atomflot, regarding transport of spent nuclear fuel, March 1995. Return
[556] Nilsen, T., and Bøhmer, N., Sources of Radioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Counties, Bellona Report no.1 :1994. Return
[557] Severny Rabochy, 1995. Return
[558] Krasnaya Zvezda, March 15. 1995. Return
[559] Nilsen, T., and Bøhmer, N., Sources of Radioactive Contamination in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Counties, Bellona Report no.1 :1994. Return
[560] Krasnaya Zvezda, March 15. 1995. Return
[561] Information given on a press conference at Atomflot, regarding transport of spent nuclear fuel, March 1995. Return
[562] Footnote on a resolution document from March 1, 1995, No. 15. Return
[563] The Environmental Committee of Murmansk, Branch of Radiation Safety, Murmansk 1995 Return
[564] Information given on a press conference at Atomflot, regarding transport of spent nuclear fuel, March 1995. Return
[565] Ibid. Return
[566] Komsomolskaya Pravda, June 23, 1995. Return

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