Prepares nuclear waste ship for final voyage

Look, but don't touch. The nuclear waste vessel "Lepse" in the floating dock at the nuclear powered icebreakers base Atomflot. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

“Lepse” is balancing inside the floating dock just north of Murmansk as workers make preparations for her final voyage in Arctic waters after the summer. This vessel should better not sink.


It is not a normal cargo ship that now is taken into the northernmost floating dock in Murmansk. From distance it is hard to believe, but getting closer to the hull your Geiger counter will warn you about the ships lethal cargo. In the hold, covered with concrete, there are partly destroyed spent nuclear fuel roads.

The inventory includes 260 kilograms of uranium-235 and eight kilograms of plutonium-239 and other fissile materials. This vessel should better not sink.

That is also the main reason why “Lepse” is taken out of the waters and stabilized inside the dock in the Kola bay. If all goes as planned, the ship will be towed northbound from Murmansk in September. Destination is Nerpa, a naval yard located in sheltered waters on the coast of the Barents Sea. Nerpa is well known for its work on decommissioning Cold War nuclear powered submarines.

The bad state of the vessel has caused concerns among citizens in Murmansk fearing “Lepse” could overthrow and release radioactivity to the environment.

“Lepse” has a history that goes back to the 60ties when she was serving the Soviet Union’s first nuclear powered icebreaker “Lenin.” The old, but still highly radioactive, uranium fuel onboard “Lepse” comes from the reactors of “Lenin.”

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. The grants come after the environmental group Bellona, lobbying from its offices in Murmansk, Oslo and Brussels, finally succeeded in lifting “Lepse” on the “urgent-to-do” list agreed by both European and Russian authorities.

“Murmansk will surely gain in safety terms if “Lepse” is removed. The ship is the most potentially radiation dangerous object in Murmansk area, Bellona’s Igor Koudrik told BarentsObserver last year.

After the ship is cut up and the damaged spent nuclear fuel is removed, the plan is to store the 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.