When "Lepse" was moored at Atomflot in Murmansk, the quay was sealed off with radiation warning signs.

Work on removing nuclear waste from 85-years old ship has started in Russia's north

The compartment with hundreds of partly damaged spent fuel elements is taken into a shelter to minimize the risk in case of radioactive leakages.
May 23, 2019


It is a milestone for nuclear safety clean-up on the Kola Peninsula. Though, the removal of the spent nuclear fuel elements from the storage compartment from «Lepse» will take time. The work is, to say it mildly, a high risk operation involving uranium fuel so radioactive it could cause lethal dose to workers if something goes wrong.

«Preparatory work for this stage of the disposal of «Lepse» has been underway for the last two years,» Chief Engineer Georgy Neyman of the Nerpa shipyard told Komsomolskaya Pravda.

«A protective shelter is built,» Neyman said.

Phase one of the work, which started last week, is removing the 620 fuel elements believed not to be damaged. The elements will be loaded over to special casks for shipping to Atomflot service base in Murmansk. From there, a special train will take the casks to Mayak reprocessing plant in the Chelyabinsk region in the South-Urals.

The work ahead is the most demanding. Cutting out the radioactive elements is done by using robotics. Inside the shelter, humans should spend as little times as possible.

«The time intervals during which a person can be in the presence of ionizing radiation are strictly observed,» Oleg Khalimullin, deputy chief engineer at Nerpa shipyard said in an interview with the news portal of Bellona. The environmental group in Murmansk has for 25 years worked on promoting a safe disposal of «Lepse».


The compartment with spent nuclear fuel elements being taken into the shelter at Nerpa shipyard. Photo: Anna Kireeva / Bellona

In the early 1990s, the plan was simply to tow the aging storage ship to Novaya Zemlya in the Russian Arctic and dispose it in the permafrost near the shore.

With radionuclides onboard estimated to be some 28,000 TBq (750,000 Curie), or nearly half the release of the Cesium-137 isotope that contaminated half of northern Europe following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the “Lepse” was a ticking threat to people and nature around Murmansk.

«Lepse» was built in 1936, sunken during World War II, lifted afterwards and used as a radiological support vessel for the Soviet Union’s first nuclear powered icebreaker, «Lenin» from 1962. After a coolant accident with one of the three reactors on «Lenin» in 1966 some few hundreds of the spent fuel roads were lifted over to the storage compartment to «Lepse» . Radiation levels were high and “sarcophagus” was built over by filling cement.

Both neighbouring Norway and the European Union have finacially and technically assisted Russia with securing the nuclear waste ship and preparing for the work now started. 

Expenses for the shelter and robotics are co-financed by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

If all go in accordance with schedule, removing the nuclear fuel from the compartment should be ended next year. 

In 2012, “Lepse” had to stay in a floating dock at Atomflot in Murmansk to avoid the old ship from sinking. Thomas Nilsen



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