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

The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination

- a short summary and presentation of the Bellona report

The Bellona Report The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination gives a thorough overview of the sources of potential releases of radioactivity which could harm the public health and the environment. The problems of nuclear waste and disused nuclear submarines is a product of the arms race and the cold war. Russia continues to build new nuclear submarines, but there are very few provisions being made to properly store old nuclear submarines and develop sufficient storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and other radadioactive waste.

There is a minimum of 21.067m3 of radioactive waste and at least 7.523 m3 of liquid radioactive waste at the naval bases and shipyards that are described in this report. More than 24.000 fuel assemblies and nine reactor cores are stored at the temporary storage facilities. In addition to this, there is a minimum of 5.040 spent fuel assemblies stored on board service ships. A total of 88 Northern Fleet nuclear submarines have been taken out of service, of which at least 52 have been laid up while still containing their nuclear fuel.

Map over the different naval bases on Kola (18 kb.)


[Content] [NFL Updated]


At the end of World War 2, the United States Navy was considerably larger and more powerful that its Soviet counterpart. To catch up with this head start, the Soviet Union built a large number of nuclear submarines and a series of new naval bases and shipyards on the Kola Peninsula. The Kola Peninsula is of particular strategic interest and importance due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the fact that its coast is free of ice in the winter. The first Soviet nuclear submarine was taken into use by the Northern Fleet in 1958. A number of larger naval bases and shipyards were established to service the growing fleet of Soviet nuclear powered vessels. This fleet grew rapidly to become the world's largest fleet.

Nuclear submarines in service

The former Soviet Union built a total of 247 nuclear submarines and five military nuclear powered battle ships. The nuclear submarines were built at four different shipyards. Today, only Sevmash Shipyard in Severodvinsk builds nuclear submarines. At the present time, there are 67 operational nuclear submarines with the Northern fleet. A total of 88 submarines have been taken out of service. However, due to economic difficulties, a number of the operational vessels remain inactive and tied to the pier for large parts of the year.

Naval Bases

The Northern Fleet has five naval bases on the Kola Peninsula, and some of these have several base facilities. The westernmost of these is Zapadnaya Litsa, while Gremikha is the easternmost. Radioactive waste is stored at most of the naval bases. There are several closed towns in connection with the naval bases, making up a population of over 100 000 inhabitants on the Kola Peninsula. The establishment of the supporting infrastructure at the naval bases has often been delayed compared to the rate of delivery of new nuclear submarines. This is particularly true with regards to storage and treatment facilities for radioactive waste which continues to present significant technological problems.


There are five shipyards for repair and maintenance and one yard for constructing new nuclear submarines in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk counties. Three shipyards are subject to the Northern Fleet, while another three of these yards fall under the auspices of the Ministry of Shipbuilding. Due to the cutbacks in the number of operative submarines, the amount of work for these yards has been drastically reduced, leading to some serious economic problems. A few of the shipyards now also accept civilian commissions, and it is also they who are largely responsible for the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. Radioactive waste is stored at all of the shipyards, at times in large amounts.

Solid radioactive Waste

Solid radioactive waste is stored at 11 different places along the coast of the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk. All of the facilities are full, and at a number of them, solid radioactive waste is also stored outside the storage building in the open without any kind of protection. There is no regional storage facility for solid nuclear waste.

Liquid radioactive waste

Liquid radioactive waste is stored at almost all of the naval bases, either in land-based tanks, or on board service ships or floating tankers. Most of the storage tanks for liquid radioactive waste are full, and a number of them are in very poor condition. The storage crisis is precipitated by the lack of treatment plants. The processing capacity is too small at the existing civilian treatment plant at the nuclear icebreaker base Atomflot in Murmansk while the costs to the Northern Fleet are too high.

Storage of spent nuclear fuel

The Northern Fleet's largest temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel lies at Zapadnaya Litsa in Andreeva Bay, about 40 km from the Norwegian border. Approximately 21 000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies are stored here, corresponding to 90 nuclear reactors. The fuel assemblies are stored in three concrete tanks (also in very poor condition). In the 1980s, there were large leaks of radioactivity from an old storage pool. Fuel assemblies are also stored in rusty containers outside without any form of protection from runoff. There is also a smaller storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in Gremikha. Here too the fuel assemblies have been stored outside, and there have been leaks of radioactive waste from the storage pool. The reactor cores from submarines running with liquid metal cooled reactors are stored in Gremikha.

Transporting spent nuclear fuel

Spent nuclear fuel is transported on board ships that do not satisfy safety regulations. The spent nuclear fuel is transported between the shipyards, temporary storage areas and loading point of the railroad in Murmansk and in Severodvinsk. From these points, the spent nuclear fuel is transported further to the reprocessing facility RT-1 in Mayak. There is a serious lack of capacity of rail transportation, and reprocessing at Mayak is quite expensive for the Northern Fleet. The amounts of spent nuclear fuel will dramatically increase if the transport problem is not solved. Another solution under consideration is building a large long term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in north-western Russia.

Service Ships

The Northern Fleet has four special tankers for the storage and transport of liquid radioactive waste. None of these ships are in satisfactory condition, and all of them are over 25 years old. On one ship, the equipment on board for treating liquid radioactive waste does not work. The Northern Fleet also has two larger ships for transporting spent nuclear fuel as well as two smaller barges for this purpose.

Decommissioning nuclear submarines

At this time, there are over 130 Russian nuclear submarines that have been taken out of service, of which 88 vessels belong to the Northern Fleet. These submarines have been laid up at Severodvinsk and nine other locations on the Kola Peninsula. The greatest risk to safety is presented by the 52 submarines that have not yet been defuelled. The submarines are not brought into dock, and are in very poor condition. The vessels still containing their nuclear fuel are undermanned. If the work of decommissioning these submarines is to proceed in the proper fashion, a significant infusion of funds either from the state or from some other source will be necessary.

Accidents on nuclear submarines

From 1961 until the present, there have been many accidents involving nuclear submarines of the Northern Fleet. Most of these have happened while the submarine was on patrol, although some have also occurred during refuelling or repair operations. Three nuclear submarines belonging to the Northern Fleet have sunk. There have been loss of coolant accidents in 10 submarines and four serious fires on board these vessels in which human life has been lost. There have also been a number of large and small leaks of radioactive coolant in operational vessels.

Economic Problems

In 1994, only 35% of allocated funds were transferred to the Northern Fleet in real terms. In 1995, the Northern fleet did not receive in real terms the 600 billion roubles allocated to it in the Russian budget. What money was transferred went largely for paying salaries and welfare benefits for Northern Fleet personnel. Resources for maintaining storage facilities for radioactive waste have been sharply cut back, and in the last two years, hardly any work at all has been done in securing radioactive waste. On two occasions, unpaid electricity bills resulted in the shut off of power at a shipyard and a naval base. The Northern Fleet is now investigating alternative possibilities for earning income, including selling naval vessels to foreign countries and leasing its nuclear submarines for other than military purposes.

Reduced Competence

Eighty percent of all naval specialists and operators of naval nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union were trained at the naval college in Sevastopol. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the school has not been used, since Sevastopol is located in Ukraine. Economic problems also result in less operational training for the crew than earlier; furthermore, worsening social conditions result in ever fewer officers choosing not to renew their five year contracts with the Russian Navy. The turnover of officers undermines the safety.

Overwiev over sources of radioactive contamination in the Russian Northern Fleet

Place Facility Amount
Zapadnaya Litsa Naval Bases 26 operational nuclear submarines
One inactive nuclear submarine with nuclear fuel
One inactive nuclear submarine
23.260 spent fuel assemblies
2.000 m3 liquid radioactive waste
6.000 m3 solid radioactive waste
(Ura Bay)
Naval bases 4 operational nuclear submarines
One reactor of Nurka class
14 inactive nuclear submarines containing nuclear fuel
At least 3 m3 liquid radioactive waste Solid radioactive waste
Naval bases Unknown number of nuclear submarines
200 m3 liquid radioactive waste
2.037 m3 solid radioactive waste
Occasional service ship containing nuclear fuel
Occasional service ship with liquid radioactive waste
Saida Bay Storage Facility 12 submarine hulls with reactors
Severomorsk Naval base Two nuclear powered battle cruisers
Gremikha Naval base Some operational nuclear submarines
15 inactive nuclear submarines
300 m3 solid radioactive waste
2.000 m3 liquid radioactive waste
795 spent fuel assemblies
9 reactor cores from submarines with liquid metal cooled reactors
Nerpa Shipyard 2 submarines in process of being decommissioned
Periodical service ships containing spent nuclear fuel
Periodical service ships with liquid radioactive waste
200 m3 solid radioactive waste
170 m3 liquid radioactive waste
Shipyard One submarine in for maintenance
One service ship with spent nuclear fuel
One service ship with liquid radioactive waste
7 inactive nuclear submarines with fuel
Storage facility for solid radioactive waste
150 m3 liquid radioactive waste
Sevmorput Shipyard One inactive nuclear submarine with spent nuclear fuel
One inactive nuclear submarine - defulled
Occasional service ship with liquid radioactive waste
Storage for solid radioactive waste
Severodvinsk Shipyard 12.539 m3 solid radioactive waste
3.000 m3 liquid radioactive waste
4 nuclear submarines in for maintenance
12 inactive nuclear submarines with nuclear fuel
4 reactor compartments from decommissioned nuclear submarines

[Content] [NFL Updated]
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CD-version, updated 1997-09-28

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