Last voyage for nuclear waste hulk

A proud Frederic Hauge of the Bellona Fournation was following "Lepse" out from Murmansk Friday morning. Photo:Vladislav Nikiforov/Bellona

The most dangerous ship in northern Europe is Friday sailing towards her final decommissioning site. “It is a victory to international cooperation that we today, after 20 years of plans and talks, can follow “Lepse” on her final voyage. Murmansk is a safer place from today,” says Frederic Hauge of the Bellona Foundation.


“First time we visited “”Lepse” here in Murmansk was back in 1992. At that time, we were told about the plans to just dig a small ditch into the shores in a bay on Novaya Zemlya and bury the old nuclear waste vessel and just leave it,” Frederic Hauge tells BarentsObserver.

“We have had a great progress since then. Rosatomflot and Bellona have worked with many international partners and governments to develop a proper risk-assessment plan for a safe decommissioning of “Lepse” – and of course found funding for the work,” a proud Hauge tells from Murmansk Friday morning.

“Lepse” is now slowly being towed out of the heavily populated areas of Murmansk towards the Nerpa naval yard where she will be decommissioned. From tonight, the 307,000 inhabitants of Murmansk, the world’s largest city north of the Arctic Circle, can sleep more relaxed. 

“Lepse” has been laid-up at Atomflot, the nuclear powered icebreaker base just north of Murmansk center, since the late 80ies. The inventory of the vessel includes hundreds of partly damaged uranium spent fuel elements from the Soviet Union’s first nuclear powered icebreaker “Lenin.”

The fuel elements contains some 260 kilograms of uranium-235 and eight kilograms of plutonium-239 and other fissile materials. This vessel should better not sink, BarentsObserver wrote earlier this year when “Lepse” was standing in a dry-dock, being prepared for today’s final voyage.

“I remember the first time I was aboard “Lepse” back in 1992. It was a very special experience be on board a nuclear storage vessel where our Geiger counters ran riot,” says Frederic Hauge.

Getting “Lepse” safely out of Murmansk and decommissioned has been a high profile case for Europe’s nuclear safety cooperation with Russia in the north for nearly two decades. In 2008, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) granted €43 million to the decommission work.

When the vessel arrives at the Nerpa naval yard later tonight, the preparations for decommissioning will start. First the damaged spent nuclear fuel will have to be removed. That is the most risky part of the work. The uranium fuel will be taken over in storage casks and sent to Russia’s reprocessing plant Mayak in the South Urals. Then the plan is to store the remaining and still-radioactive compartments and radioactive metal from “Lepse” at a huge onshore storage pad designed for submarine reactors in Saida bay, just west of Nerpa shipyard on the Kola coast.