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Soviet-era nuclear service ship ready for defuelling

By Axel  Reiserer

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Shelter established for service vessel Lepse

  • Shelter for defuelling of nuclear service ship opened
  • Lepse storage area still holds 639 spent fuel assemblies
  • Safe removal of nuclear materials takes decisive step forward

Overcoming the legacy of the operation of nuclear-powered ships in northern Russia is marking a major milestone today with the opening of a shelter for the defuelling of the former Soviet icebreaker service ship Lepse.

The vessel – built in 1934 and taken out of service in 1988 – holds 639 damaged and distorted spent nuclear fuel assemblies which cannot be removed from their current specialised storage facilities, representing a serious threat to the environment.

The new facility, located at the Nerpa shipyard near Murmansk in northern Russia, will create safe conditions to cut out the spent nuclear fuel from these tanks, transfer the nuclear material into new canisters and transport the canisters in casks to Mayak, a nuclear reprocessing plant in the Urals.

Withdrawn from service in 1988, the Lepse steadily deteriorated in dock, posing a threat to the environment and local population. The EBRD has been at the very heart of the project to retrieve the spent fuel - and make safe the Lepse’s legacy.

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The shelter cost €23 million and was financed through the Nuclear Window of the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP) Support Fund, an international fund with contributions from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom and managed by the EBRD.

The opening ceremony was attended by Vyacheslav Ruksha, Deputy Director General, Rosatom, Marina Kovtun, Governor of the Murmansk Region, Nils Bøhmer, General Manager, Bellona Foundation, and Denis Minkin, Director, Kurchatov Institute, and Balthasar Lindauer, EBRD Director, Nuclear Safety, who said: “Today we are celebrating a historic moment as the task of our fund nears completion and our goals are close to being achieved. The conditions are now in place to enable the defuelling of the Lepse and to remove a serious danger to the people and the environment of northern Russia.”

The Lepse was dismantled at the Nerpa shipyard. The spent nuclear fuel is now in a so-called “large storage package”. This can now be moved into the shelter which is equipped with the tools for the safe, remotely controlled, removal operations. These are expected to take some 21 months and will be handled by Russia’s Atomflot, a state enterprise that services the country’s nuclear-powered vessels.

The EBRD is fund manager of the NDEP Nuclear Window. Other projects financed by the fund are the supply of a system for the handling and transport of 22,000 spent fuel assemblies from the coastal technical base in Andreeva Bay, built in the 1960s to service nuclear submarines of the former Soviet Northern Fleet, and the removal of spent nuclear fuel from reactors of Papa-class nuclear-powered submarines.

In addition, the EBRD manages six other nuclear decommissioning funds, including the Chernobyl Shelter Fund as the biggest undertaking. The latest fund is the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia, established in 2015 to assist the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to remediate some of the most dangerous sites left by uranium production in these countries.

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