Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsSubmarines

Russia's Scrap Yard for Subs Torpedoed by Lack of Money

U.S. has funded the destruction of Soviet nuclear vessels, but pact runs out this year.

January 26, 2003|Anatoly Medetsky | Associated Press Writer

BOLSHOI KAMEN, Russia — The towering rock in the bay that gave this town its name is long gone, blown up by engineers who called it a hindrance to navigation.

Gone, too, is the town's onetime livelihood: refueling and repairing the submarines that were to have been the backbone of a mighty Pacific Fleet for the Soviet Union.

Half a century after its birth as a secret Soviet military town, Bolshoi Kamen -- Russian for Big Rock -- has a less grandiose mission. It's the home of Zvezda (Star), one of Russia's two principal centers for scrapping the submarines that it no longer needs.

For eight years, Zvezda has received tens of millions of dollars from the United States to safely dismantle 22 submarines that were taken out of service under U.S.-Russian disarmament treaties.

In all, Washington committed $120.1 million to Zvezda -- funding such equipment as the gargantuan, clanking shears that slice up submarines for scrap metal and the boxy building where thick cable is reprocessed to retrieve copper.

But Zvezda is scheduled to cut up its last submarine under that deal later this year, and the American funding will dry up. So the plant's bosses are campaigning for new money to pay for the disposal of dozens of other submarines that did not target the United States, yet remain security and environmental threats.

Russia says the money must be found quickly.

"Nuclear things are like a volcano and can explode any time," said Valery Lebedev, deputy nuclear power minister.

All together, Russia has decommissioned about 190 nuclear-powered submarines over the last 15 years. Officials say 90 of those still languish at docks with nuclear fuel in their reactors.

The presence of the radioactive fuel and poor conditions at naval facilities feed international worries about the possibility of nuclear materials being transferred to other nations or terrorists.

Inadequate maintenance also creates a risk of dangerous radiation leaks. Two decommissioned submarines sank off the northeastern Kamchatka Peninsula in 1997 and 1999. They were quickly raised, and the navy said they did no harm, but they remain a concern.

"They are dangerous and the danger will grow with every year," said Vice Adm. Nikolai Yurasov, who oversees submarine dismantlement in the Pacific Fleet.

Russia plans to destroy 131 submarines by 2010, says Viktor Akhunov, head of the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry's ecology and decommissioning department. Almost all were taken out of service in the 1980s.

Akhunov says it will cost $3.9 billion to scrap all the subs. But last year, the Russian government budgeted just $70 million for improving nuclear safety in the country as a whole.

One of the most pressing tasks is constructing a storage base for 19 reactor compartments now floating in Razboynik Bay near Bolshoi Kamen, Akhunov says.

Because Russia has no onshore facility for storing decommissioned submarine reactors, the practice is to cut three-compartment sections out of the submarines -- the reactor compartment in the middle, flanked by compartments on either side that provide buoyancy. The three-compartment sections, welded with steel sheets over each end, are stored afloat.

Construction of the storage facility, which would cost an estimated $70 million, is slated to start this year, but Russia is still seeking foreign funds.

Russia is also seeking $18 million to build a long-term containment structure for two submarines whose reactors were damaged in accidents and emit high radiation.

The subs are kept afloat by pontoons in a bay near Bolshoi Kamen.

Bolshoi Kamen, built in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a secret Soviet defense-company town, is about 17 miles east of the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

One of Zvezda's most costly installations is a $42-million barge-mounted complex donated by Japan that is used to treat low-level liquid radioactive waste from the laundry that handles plant workers' clothes.

When work to scrap the nuclear submarines started in the late 1980s, the liquid waste was dumped into the Sea of Japan because there was no way of collecting, processing and storing it, says Yuri Shulgan, Zvezda's director.

The plant built underground storage facilities of reinforced concrete, but they quickly filled up, prompting the resumption of dumping of radioactive water into the sea, he says.

The Japanese government has earmarked $168 million more for cleanup work at Bolshoi Kamen -- funding prompted in part by Russian military journalist Grigory Pasko's reports on nuclear waste dumping in the area.

Pasko sits in a prison near Vladivostok, serving a four-year term for illegally attending a meeting of military leaders and possessing notes that he made there. He says his prosecution was punishment for his revelations of the navy's nuclear pollution.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|