Decommissioning the Russian Far East Fleet's Nuclear Submarines: Ron Smith Reports on a Vladivostok Conference That Focused on a Worrying Legacy of the Cold War

Article excerpt

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built up the largest fleet of nuclear-propelled submarines in the world, with something under half of them stationed in the Far East. Since the demise of the Soviet Union many of these vessels have been taken out of service, either as a consequence of arms control agreements or, more pressingly, because of lack of funds. They are now resting in various states of neglect and decay in harbours and inlets around the coastline of the Russian Far East.

The special problems of nuclear submarine decommissioning affect (or will affect) all five of the established nuclear powers, but only Russia faces the combination of a large number of ships that absolutely demand attention, a totally run-down infrastructure and a critical lack of funds. There have already been accidents in the course of decom-missioning and some undesirable practices have emerged, but the problems are still largely ahead. Unless Russia gets substantial financial and technical help from the rest of the world--most notably the United States, Britain and France--there is the prospect of an environmental disaster in the north-eastern corner of the Pacific. There is also a potential security threat from the nuclear material that is still in many of these ships, or in temporary storage on shore--the more so since some classes of nuclear propelled submarine used uranium fuel of 90 per cent enrichment (that is, weapons-grade material).

This is the background to a major international conference on the issue that was held in Vladivostok in September 2002. (1) The gathering also included a conducted tour of the main Far Eastern shipyard `Zvezda', situated across Peter the Great Bay from Vladivostok. It was very clear from the thrust of many of the papers, and the nature of some of the activities, that the conference was only partly intended to review the many problems in nuclear submarine decommissioning and some of the possible solutions. It was also an effort to encourage interest and participation from abroad and, above all, to get financial support. For regional neighbours, the possibility of radioactive contamination of the environment from accidents or inappropriate practices is a serious concern. Modelling of the ecological consequences of air or water spills, presented at the conference, shows how the various states might be affected in particular circumstances. (2) The submarines of the Russian Far East Fleet also pose a wider danger through the weapon potential of the spent fuel that is still in many of them, or held in temporary storage on land. This is arguably a global problem.

According to information provided at the conference, Russia has some 75 nuclear submarines in the Far Eastern region that have been withdrawn from service. Of these, around 25 have been partially or completely decommissioned. This is from a complete inventory of 245 submarines that were built during the Cold War period (see Table 1). There is some confusion in the terminology. Strictly, `decommissioning' would refer to the permanent removal of a vessel from service. However, the term is used more generally to refer to a sequence of operations, the end point of which is the safe storage or disposal of dangerous material and the scrapping and recycling (where possible) of the rest of the hull and fittings. This is the sense in which the expression is used in this article.

Complex operation

The decommissioning of a nuclear-propelled submarine is a complex operation. If it also has nuclear weapons, these, of course, will be removed at an early stage. In the context, this is a relatively straightforward process, although the fissile material from the warhead needs secure storage once it is removed from the warhead. The proliferation danger from this material has long been recognised and there are now well-established mechanisms for its ultimate destruction. For the most part, the uranium-235 and plutonium-239 recovered from warhead `pits' is being blended down and burnt in power reactors. …