Norwegian involvement in the dismantling of Russian nuclear submarines

Norwegian involvement in the dismantling of Russian nuclear submarines

On 30 June 2003, the Norwegian authorities signed contracts to finance the dismantling of two non-strategic submarines from Russia’s Northern Fleet. The two vessels were dismantled at the Nerpa shipyard on the Kola Peninsula and the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk outside Arkhangelsk. These operations have now been completed.

The project has been evaluated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in co-operation with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. In addition, the British firm Enviros Consulting was commissioned by the Ministry to review and assess the environmental impact of the project. The Norwegian-Russian Commission for Nuclear Safety will discuss further Norwegian assistance in dismantling nuclear submarines at its meeting in Arkhangelsk on 28 June to 1 July 2004.

Of the roughly 250 nuclear submarines Russia has built, 193 have now been taken out of service. These include 117 vessels from the Northern Fleet, 57 of which still need to be dismantled. More than half of the remaining submarines still have spent fuel on board. Many of them are in very poor condition.

Since 1995, Norway has allocated more than NOK 950 million to various nuclear safety projects in Russia. In addition to the submarine dismantling project, projects that have been carried out include an upgrade of storage facilities for radioactive waste from nuclear submarines and the construction of specialised railway rolling stock to transport spent reactor fuel to reprocessing facilities.

The dismantling of the two decommissioned submarines from the Northern Fleet is the largest Norwegian-Russian nuclear safety project to date. The total cost ceilings for the two contracts were EUR 5.0 million and 5.2 million. The submarines belonged to the Victor II class and were built in Leningrad in 1976 and 1978.

Implementation of the project

When the contracts were signed, the submarines had already been towed to the shipyards from the Gremikha base on the Kola Peninsula.

Dismantling began in August 2003. The reactor fuel was removed and transported to the Mayak reprocessing facility in January 2004 (from Nerpa) and February 2004 (from Zvezdochka). Dismantling was completed in April 2004. The reactor sections (defuelled) from both vessels have been separated from the hull and sealed. One reactor section has been transported for storage in Saida Bay west of Murmansk, the other is at Zvezdochka awaiting transportation to Saida Bay.

Various phases of the dismantling process were inspected by Norwegian experts to ensure that the project was carried out in accordance with the contract. Payments were made on the basis of the inspection reports.


The project was completed within the specified time frame and within the budget. The work was carried out in accordance with the contracts and there were no unforeseen incidents or accidents. The documentation available and several visits to the shipyards revealed no evidence that the dismantling operations have had a negative impact on the environment.

The evaluation by the Norwegian authorities and the review and assessment carried out by Enviros conclude that the objectives of the project have been achieved:

  • Dismantling of the vessels, interim storage of the radioactive waste from the vessels and transport of the reactor fuel to other sites has helped to reduce the risk of radioactive contamination of the environment in northwestern Russia. In its environmental impact assessment, Enviros concludes that the “no-action” option (not proceeding with defuelling the submarines) would in the long term lead to continued risks of significant releases of contaminants to the environment.
  • Transporting the reactor fuel from the vessels to the Mayak reprocessing facility is an important part of the efforts to secure fissile material. The submarine project thus also represents an important contribution to the efforts of the G8 Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

Our co-operation with the shipyards and the Russian authorities was satisfactory. The system of inspections has functioned as intended. The inspections revealed no breaches of contract or other special circumstances that made it necessary to withhold any payments, with one exception. In this case, the matter was resolved as soon as the shipyard produced the information we requested.

There were no significant problems relating to access to the shipyard for the Norwegian inspectors. However, a clearer division of responsibilities and better routines on the part of the Russians could further reduce visa problems.

At the Nerpa shipyard, there were restrictions on the inspectors’ access to the facilities for unloading spent nuclear fuel because the work was being carried out in a military area. There were no such restrictions at the Zvezdochka shipyard. If more projects of this type are to be carried out in the future, such matters will be of crucial importance in determining the choice of shipyard.

There is still room for improvement as regards access to documentation and information. The documentation we received from the Russians for the purpose of Enviros’ review and assessment was relatively limited, and assessments and conclusions must be seen in this light.

The shipyards’ own environmental impact assessment contains sensitive information on the construction of the submarines, their reactors and the fuel. It was only released to the Norwegian authorities after some pressure, and certain chapters were withheld. Work is therefore in progress internationally and bilaterally to find arrangements that will satisfy both parties’ interests.

Nuclear submarines contain large quantities of environmentally hazardous non-radioactive waste. The Norwegian team of inspectors therefore included experts in this field. They concluded that there is room for improvement in the way the shipyards deal with this type of waste. They also pointed out that greater openness and more detailed information on such waste is needed.

The fact that two submarines of the same type were being dismantled made the inspectors’ work simpler. In addition, it was possible to make a thorough comparison of the two shipyards, including their infrastructure, organisation and workplace culture.