Russian Submarine Dismantlement Issues

Cristina Chuen
December 3, 2003

Russian Submarine Dismantlement Issues: Decommissioned Russian submarines

Decommissioned Russian submarines,
Source: Energiewerke Nord (EWN) GmbH

Russia’s decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines continue to present serious proliferation-related and environmental threats. That is why Russian President Vladimir Putin has identified submarine dismantlement as a top Russian priority. The immensity of the problem inherited from Soviet times, though, means that without foreign support it would take Russia many years to handle the problem. Russia’s concerns have been recognized by the international community, which has pledged its assistance. Nearly all of the countries involved in the Global Partnership have committed themselves to assisting in the dismantlement of Russia’s nuclear-powered general-purpose submarines and management of spent nuclear submarine fuel (SNF) and other radioactive wastes. The United States is continuing to dismantle decommissioned ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). New pledges under the auspices of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction promise significant progress in the scrapping of the 110 decommissioned general purpose submarines currently rusting at Russian piers. Russia itself has already significantly increased the speed at which it is unloading nuclear fuel from these vessels, but 78 still need to be defueled. (2) It is important to leverage the current level of Russian and international interest by quickly getting submarine dismantlement and related projects onto a firm footing, so that solutions to this dangerous problem can finally make headway. (1)

A rapid submarine dismantlement program involving over a dozen countries and organizations faces certain difficulties, however. Assistance must be properly coordinated, so that efforts are not duplicated, delays in one project do not create difficulties for other activities, and no critical tasks are left undone. The recent sinking of the K-159, caused by insufficient oversight during a rush to transport 16 submarines to dismantlement sites from remote Gremikha Naval Base over the summer, (3) makes it quite clear that foreign partners must be involved in decisions affecting all stages of the dismantlement process, lest they contribute to another accident. Even a small accident involving a foreign-funded project could put all projects in danger. Both coordination and oversight needs demand that a detailed overall plan, organizing all of the undertakings related to submarine dismantlement, be drawn up by technical experts. Such a plan would help Russia’s partners convince their countrymen of the importance of individual projects, improve their understanding of what aid is truly needed, and reassure them that all undertakings related to their projects are being implemented with minimal risk.

This paper looks at the issues that must be considered in order to ensure a well-planned dismantlement process that maintains the safety and security of nuclear materials. After reviewing the extent of the submarine problem and associated proliferation risks, it outlines the liability, transparency, and access issues that continue to delay several assistance projects, and makes basic suggestions for a compromise solution. Next, it turns to the necessity of learning from the experience of US and other programs in solving contracting, access, and other problems. The coordination issue is reviewed in detail, along with a discussion of current efforts to create new coordinating mechanisms. The brief then turns to the issue of prioritization, pointing out the short-term and long-term considerations that must be taken into account when deciding what projects to finance. Finally, some immediate needs that are not being met at present are identified. Charts outlining current foreign assistance projects in the naval sphere and the facilities involved in these projects are provided at the end of the brief.

Proliferation Risks

The spent fuel from 346 reactor cores, currently stored in several service vessels, four ex-naval bases, and some 78 submarines, contains about 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, and significant quantities of plutonium. (4) The many years some reactors have been decommissioned have reduced the radioactivity of the nuclear fuel, and it could therefore be handled by would-be terrorists not overly concerned with personal safety. Other reactors have fuel rods that were never fully burned up in the first place. While most of the spent naval fuel is enriched to just 20-40%, meaning that a great deal of material would be needed, along with sophisticated equipment, to develop weapons-usable material from the uranium contained in the fuel, a “quick and dirty” reprocessing of this spent fuel could result in plutonium useful for a nuclear device. An even more immediate danger is that irradiated fuel might be used in a radiological dispersal device, or “dirty bomb,” or leak from aging storage facilities and create an environmental disaster. The protection and safe storage of this fuel and other radioactive materials, therefore, should be of primary concern to the world community.

Liability, Transparency, and Access Issues

Russia has been seeking assistance in handling nuclear submarines for a decade. During this time, storage conditions have deteriorated and nuclear and radioactive materials have become a new target for terrorist groups. (5) Russia itself has identified its nuclear navy as a priority, and should be willing to compromise to facilitate projects in this area. It is imperative that plans to secure nuclear and radioactive materials get off the drawing board as soon as possible. Although much progress has been made in the past year, with the conclusion of the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program in the Russian Federation (MNEPR) agreement and new pledges of assistance, many projects continue to be held up by liability and transparency concerns.

The liability issue currently holds back Canadian assistance to the dismantlement of Russian general-purpose nuclear submarines, delayed the conclusion of a dismantlement contract with Japan, and affects some US assistance as well. (6) With SSBN dismantlement, the United States and Russia put in place a liability agreement in 1992 under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program that gave the United States maximum liability – “hold harmless” – protection. (7) In contrast, in the recently signed MNEPR agreement, Russia did not agree to provide the rigorous liability coverage of the CTR agreement. Therefore, although the United States did sign the MNEPR agreement, it chose not to sign the liability protocol, which European partner countries did sign. The G8’s Global Partnership summit in June 2003 in Evian, France, highlighted that “adequate liability protections are essential for project implementation.” Continued high-level political attention is needed to ensure that the liability issue does not continue to hold up assistance projects. Some liability protection is clearly needed to eliminate any incentive for frivolous lawsuits against foreign contractors or assistance providers. On the other hand, complete protection, though legally possible, is a practical impossibility: in a large accident, Russia would find it difficult to provide complete compensation or clean up affected territory, and any foreign countries involved in an accident would face political pressure to pay for compensation and rehabilitation. Therefore, an international solution to liability issues is needed. Time is of the essence: as Russia’s nuclear submarines and storage facilities continue to age, accidents become more likely.

Questions of transparency and access similarly demand high-level attention. Some creativity is needed to provide necessary information to foreign partners, so that they can be assured that their funds are being spent wisely and that safe practices are being followed, without encroaching on Russian military secrets. Russia too, however, must be flexible. Last January, President Putin argued that international cooperation had become excessively bureaucratic. While noting the importance of ensuring national security interests, he suggested that sites receiving assistance should be made more readily available to foreign partners. (8) Access continues to be a problem, however. Russia’s partners should look carefully at their demands for access, so that they demand the minimum necessary. If these access needs are reasonable, however, Russia’s highest authorities must help facilitate this access, so that the work of making its coasts safe and secure is not delayed.

Learning from Past Experience

The dismantlement process involves many distinct operations, from towing submarines or reactor compartments to shipyards to handling the large quantities of radioactive and toxic wastes accumulated by shipyards and service vessels. All of these operations must be handled safely and expeditiously, lest they hold up the dismantlement process or create backlogs. Safety, and the possibility that foreign partners might be held liable in any accident, argues for careful vetting of all procedures and detailed oversight. However, time is also of the essence, as the possibility of accident or theft increases as time goes on. Therefore, countries new to partnership in these areas should take advantage of the experience of the United States, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and others that have participated in dismantlement efforts. The United States has been granted a great deal of access and oversight in some areas, and has developed ways to work around Russian restrictions in others. The Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate (SKI) has made agreements whereby the Russian nuclear inspectorate (Gosatomnadzor, or GAN) defines or certifies standards and provides expert assistance to ensure that all assistance accords with Russian rules and regulations. Learning from past experience should help expedite current projects.


Increased contact between foreign partners is also ever more critical as the dismantlement process moves forward, and coordination becomes more difficult. To date, although the Senior Officials Group (SOG) exists to coordinate Global Partnership efforts among nations, the partner countries have negotiated most assistance projects with Russia on an individual basis. Although this has helped speed these negotiations, it is important that the whole picture be examined, to identify any possible disconnects between Russian desires and partner proposals, possible duplication, synergies that might be created between individual projects, and gaps that are not being filled. Shipyards and other facilities are already, or will soon be, dealing with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Contact Expert Group (CEG), the Nuclear Operations Committee of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP), the MNEPR Committee, the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) Program, the US Department of Energy (DOE), the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the European Commission, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Canada, France, and Italy, as well at least a half dozen Western companies serving as general contractors. In order to make sure that these many partners neither duplicate efforts nor leave a crucial operation undone, coordination is needed.

To date, the CEG, DOE, and DTRA have the most expertise in this area. Russia has initiated the establishment of a working group under the CEG that would provide informational support to Russia’s Program on the Comprehensive Dismantling of Nuclear Submarines, analyze Russian problems and the status of cooperative projects, propose projects, and coordinate projects under the Global Partnership and NDEP Fund. If given enough authority by national governments, technical experts, and Russian cooperation, this group could play a crucial coordinating role for all other projects outside the purview of the DOE and DTRA. Current CEG meetings, while a useful forum for informational exchange, are attended by far too many participants to solve emerging problems rapidly, and do not have authority over MNEPR, NDEP, or other projects. Other international organizations, such as the NDEP, have experts who have studied dismantlement issues, but similarly lack sufficient authority. The NDEP, however, is currently cooperating with Russian experts to develop a broad outline to guide cooperative projects – this “plan” is expected in December 2003. US government personnel have supported efforts to create a database and website for the MNEPR program, while the CEG is improving its website and constructing a database. Such efforts are important, and should also be assisted and harmonized, although care must be taken to ensure that websites and databases improve assistance programs without providing sensitive information to those who might abuse it.

Setting up a new mechanism under the CEG could be the solution to the coordination problem. However, coordination with US programs will remain important, and will have to be outside this organization. These programs remain the largest in Russia, and are not likely to be subsumed under any new organization. However, the assistance of DTRA is crucial where START dismantlement facilities are concerned, because these shipyards are already under contract to dismantle SSBNs, and will not be able to scrap additional general-purpose submarines in between SSBN jobs without DTRA coordination. (9) DTRA has already been active in sharing information with other assistance providers, but has apparently not yet been engaged in project scheduling issues. Other spheres of work, such as materials protection, control and accounting (MPC&A) upgrades, would benefit from increased cooperation with DOE, which has, like DTRA, sent representatives to international meetings and provided assistance when asked. As the biggest player in the field, the United States must play a part in any coordination plan. To date, international organizations appear to be waiting for individual nations to instruct them regarding coordination. It is important that a mechanism be devised sooner rather than later, so that funding and expertise can be put to best advantage, and logistic and other problems avoided.


To date, the bulk of new pledges have been directed at defueling and dismantling the submarines themselves, and remediation activities at a single ex-naval base. Pilot dismantlement projects have focused on Victor-class submarines. As over 40 such vessels have been decommissioned, and new technologies will have to be developed to scrap some of the other submarine classes, this makes sense as a first choice. However, as dismantlement moves forward, Russia’s partners may wish to think about how the defueling and dismantlement of certain classes is prioritized: should defueling Alfa-class vessels, which use uranium enriched to as much as 90%, be postponed until techniques to reprocess or immobilize the fuel are in place? Should the oldest vessels, which pose the greatest environmental threat, be scrapped quickly, or is their fuel, which has lost some of its radioactivity and is thus easier to handle, more secure in these vessels until safe interim storage and transportation to permanent storage or reprocessing facilities is available? (10) Should work on the submarines take priority, or should the safe and secure storage of the SNF at Andreyeva Bay, Gremikha, and Sysoyeva Bay and on board service vessels be tackled first – as storage conditions at these sites are much worse than those in submarines awaiting dismantlement. What are the SNF storage capacities like at the shipyards, and at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker base – located near the city of Murmansk – where icebreaker fresh and spent nuclear fuel, as well as SNF from submarines defueled at Nerpa, is stored? Have adequate radiation and physical protection measures been taken throughout the system for transporting SNF from naval sites to Mayak, in the Urals, for reprocessing? To date, international assistance is only being provided at Andreyeva Bay.

Assistance projects should be geared both toward short-term solutions (making materials secure from possible acquisition by terrorists and preventing environmental disasters) and for long-term success. Putting a priority on solving immediate needs first makes sense. Next, Russia and its partners should develop an overall plan that results in the quickest, cheapest way to get Russia’s nuclear navy into safe, secure long-term storage. For instance, since Germany has committed to building an on-shore storage facility to house submarine reactors in one-compartment sections, it does not make sense for any other projects to move forward with dismantlement operations that result in three-compartment sections, that will have to be towed to temporary floating storage, then towed back to a shipyard to be cut into one-compartment sections and towed a third time to the new on-shore storage facility. Instead of this additional risk and expense, dismantlement procedures should probably be altered to result in one-compartment sections, although these cannot be stored afloat. Experts drawing up a general plan could determine if the resulting delay in dismantling vessels, a time that could be used to handle more immediate problems at storage sites, would reduce costs, time and risks in the long run. The above are just a few of the questions that should be considered in drawing up a general dismantlement plan.

Unmet Needs

While large pledges have been made to the Global Partnership, few concrete contracts have yet been concluded. The current status of project commitments can be found in the table below. Russia itself has been quite active the past few years, gearing up for general-purpose submarine dismantlement by creating much of the necessary regulatory framework, improving shipyard infrastructure, and increasing the defueling of nuclear submarines. However, there are several projects that have yet to be tackled.

Reactor Storage

Germany has pledged to assist in cutting up floating three-compartment reactor sections currently floating in Murmansk region’s Sayda Bay and storing the reactor compartments on land. (11) This is a crucial project, as without new storage facilities reactor compartment storage will be a bottleneck, causing all other operations to grind to a halt. There is not, however, a similar project to safely store Pacific Fleet reactor compartments, although Russia has approached Japan in this regard.

Physical Protection

Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom will work on cleaning up Murmansk region’s Andreyeva Bay radioactive waste and SNF storage site. The condition of SNF and other radioactive materials at this site is atrocious and will require special engineering measures. (12) One of the first stages of the project has been to improve access to the site. Although clearly necessary for subsequent work to be done, additional care must be taken so that increased access does not translate into increased vulnerability: physical protection must be made a priority. A similar situation exists at Gremikha, also on the Kola Peninsula, where solid radioactive waste was buried in several locations not designated for such materials. (13) No one has completed a full radiation and engineering survey of the area, in order to learn exactly what materials are located where. Russia hopes to get French assistance in Gremikha, and has begun negotiations. The US DOE has given some assistance to a similar storage site on Primorye’s Shkotovo Peninsula, on Russia’s Pacific coast. The Pacific Fleet also has a fourth such site. Together, the four storage sites contain SNF from 156 reactor cores, some 23,600 m3 of solid radioactive waste, and 5,300 m3 of liquid radioactive waste, with a total activity of 7.0 x 107Ci, roughly comparable to the estimated amount of radioactivity released during the 1986 Chernobyl accident. (14) They have been transferred from the jurisdiction of the military (Russian Navy) to the Ministry of Atomic Energy, meaning that they can no longer use naval personnel as guards, but must fund their own guard force. Continued attention to physical protection at these sites is critical. Physical protection upgrades are also needed at Russian shipyards. Sweden has already begun to make upgrades at the Nerpa Shipyard, and has plans for security upgrades and Sevmash and Zvezdochka in the future. These upgrades, however, focus on a few crucial docks, and are just the beginning of the security needs at these sites. Additional assistance is needed both at these facilities and others.

Toxic Waste

Russia has also identified the lack of infrastructure for handling toxic chemical waste as a critical need in the dismantlement process. (15) Collection sites, interim storage, treatment sites, and permanent storage/isolation facilities are all needed. Another possible bottleneck involves the service ships, which unload and store nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. Russia has asked for Italian assistance in this area, but it is not yet clear that the Italian program will provide sufficient vessels quickly enough to meet program needs. Other large projects that have yet to be tackled include the defueling and dismantlement of liquid metal-cooled Alfas, mentioned above, and the dismantlement of three submarines with damaged SNF in the Pacific Fleet.

Russian Far East

While the environmental risks to Europe clearly come from Russian’s Northern Fleet, the proliferation threat from Pacific Fleet submarines endangers all nations, not only those on the Pacific Rim. The accessibility of facilities in the Russian Far East is somewhat greater than that of Northern sites: naval facilities are located closer to civilian population centers and connected to them by a roadway (access to Gremikha, by contrast, is only possible by ship, and the access road to Andreyeva Bay is not well-traveled). Adding to this vulnerability are the well-worn criminal pathways in the region, feeding scrap metal and other more valuable products to China, North Korea, and elsewhere in the region. Criminal groups have already made inroads into local naval facilities, sponsoring metals thefts, while crime has tempted insiders with access to nuclear submarines on many occasions. Thefts by guards, sailors, and even high-ranking officers range from platinum and other metals to radioactive materials.

Although Japan has registered its concern over the state of the Russian Pacific Fleet for many years, its assistance projects have gotten off to a slow start. Japan provided a liquid radioactive waste treatment plant, which is now up and running at the START-designated shipyard near Vladivostok, but has yet to complete construction of a railroad that is needed to transfer SNF and waste from the shipyard. The contract for its first pilot submarine dismantlement project was expected November 14, 2003: it has been held up by liability concerns. (16) While Russia itself has focused a great deal of its own funds on its nuclear legacy in the Pacific, there are more than three dozen submarines awaiting dismantlement in the region, two technical bases in great need of aid, and on-shore reactor compartment storage that must be built. Japanese assistance is unlikely to be great enough and fast enough to deal with this huge task – other nations must look at this area as well to ensure that nuclear materials do not fall into the wrong hands.

The focus of world attention on Russia’s decommissioned nuclear submarine problem has brought welcome promises of assistance from many countries. These commitments should do a great deal to improve the safety and security of nuclear materials inherited from the Soviet Union. Despite the hope engendered by these promises, much remains to be done to make them a reality.

In order to ensure success, partner nations must be sure to pay attention to:

Coordination. National governments must share information and cooperate as much as possible to ensure that projects progress smoothly and important work is not left undone. The establishment of a working group under the CEG should be supported by all partner countries, and national governments should give the group as much authority as possible. At the same time, cooperation with the US DOE and DTRA should be intensified.

Bottlenecks. A general plan for the dismantlement of submarines must be shared with partner countries and organizations so that all involved understand the operations necessary to a successful program, and no bottlenecks arise. Russian shipyards have already pointed out some areas that are not receiving needed assistance, such as help treating and storing toxic waste: this must be done both for environmental reasons and to ensure that the toxic waste issue does not block dismantlement and defueling operations. The provision of nuclear service ships and infrastructure needs crucial to the dismantlement program should also be priority areas for assistance providers.

Physical Protection. When submarines are defueled, that fuel becomes more vulnerable, as it is very difficult to remove nuclear fuel from a submarine, but relatively easy to move a container of SNF. Improving access to onshore technical bases similarly increases their vulnerability. Physical protection of these sites should be a main concern in all projects, and improved in the immediate future.

The Russian Far East. The 41 Pacific Fleet submarines requiring dismantlement and two onshore technical bases on Russia’s Pacific coast have received much less attention than the Northern Fleet from foreign partners. While the US DOE has made some security upgrades, material at these sites remains vulnerable. The joint Norwegian/US/Russian AMEC program, recently joined by the United Kingdom, is considering expanding to the Russian Far East, but no decision on the issue has yet been made due to budgetary concerns. Although located far from Europe, nuclear and radiological materials stolen on Russia’s Pacific coast could quickly make their way to the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. The problems of the region, therefore, should concern all nations, not just the United States and Japan.

See the following charts for more information:


(1) An earlier version of this report was prepared as a briefing for the Inter Parliamentary Conference, European Commission Non-Proliferation & Disarmament Co-operation Initiative, November 20-21, 2003, in Strasbourg, France, which the author attended through the sponsorship of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Strengthening the Global Partnership Project. The author would like to thank Dr. Clay Moltz, Dr. Charles Ferguson, Elena Sokova, Vadim Potanin, Roman Sehling, and several US and European government officials who have asked to remain anonymous for their very helpful comments. The views and assessments presented in this paper and any errors, however, are solely the responsibility of the author.
(2) Figures for decommissioned submarines from a presentation by Viktor Akhunov, Head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy Department for Decommissioning of Nuclear Installations presentation to the 16th IAEA Contact Expert Group meeting, The Hague, Netherlands, April 23-25, 2003.
(3) While plans reportedly called for towing 16 submarines, a ban on the towing method after the sinking of K-159 meant that the final pair of submarines was not towed out of Gremikha. Two vessels with spent fuel onboard remain at the site today.
(4) Reactor core figure from V.A. Shishkin, “Programme for Decommissioning of Multipurpose Nuclear Submarines in the North-West of Russia,” paper presented to the CEG, 2003 (the figure includes both Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet reactor cores); number of submarines requiring defueling and HEU figures from Akhunov, op.cit.
(5) Although physical protection of these facilities in the early 1990s was far weaker than it is today, there were no major attempts to penetrate them. Indeed, even an apparently workable plan by a Chechen group led by a former Soviet SSBN officer to take over a Russian Pacific Fleet nuclear submarine in the mid-1990s was rejected by the Chechens themselves. However, recent statements by the international terrorist group al-Qa’ida indicate that it is seeking nuclear and radioactive materials. The increasing financial ties between this group and some of the extremist groups in Chechnya are cause for renewed concern over the safety of nuclear and radioactive materials in Russia.
(6) On 28 June 2003, Japan and Russia signed an agreement on the dismantlement of a Victor III-class submarine. The conclusion of a contract between the general contractor and Zvezda Shipyard, however, was delayed by Japanese concerns over liability issues from August until November. On November 14, 2003 the Governing Council of the Russian-Japanese Committee on Cooperation to Assist in Eliminating Nuclear Weapons Subject to Reduction in the Russian Federation confirmed the conclusion of the Victor III submarine dismantlement contract with Zvezda. Interview with Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Sergey Antipov, Arms Control and Security Letters No. 9 (November 2003), PIR Center; interview of Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials cited by Dr. Nobumasa Akiyama, Hiroshima Peace Institute, Japan.
(7) For a detailed examination of different types of liability provisions, and suggestions for new ways to address this concern in the Russian context, please see R. Douglas Brubaker and Leonard S. Spector, “Liability and Western Nonproliferation Assistance to Russia: Time for a Fresh Look?” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2003),
(8) See Interfax Presidential Bulletin, January 22, 2003.
(9) Shipyard facilities should be used as intensively and efficiently as possible. Coordinating dismantlement projects better should make dismantlement of additional multipurpose submarines possible. An expert study should be carried out to determine whether funding would most effectively be used increasing the capacity of shipyards currently scrapping submarines or creating a dismantlement capacity at shipyards not yet engaged in the process.
(10) At the 18-20 November 2003 CEG conference in Murmansk, Russia, Akhunov stated that Russia has 200 tons of SNF that have a scant chance of being reprocessed, calling this issue Minatom’s “most difficult current challenge.” According to Bellona, Akhunov seemed to be opening the door to an interim spent nuclear fuel storage facility on the Kola Peninsula. Charles Digges, “Minatom releases sub decommissioning figures and admits to problems reprocessing naval fuel,” Bellona,
(11) “German-Russian Project for the Safe Disposal of Nuclear-Powered Submarines in Northwest Russia,” German Ministry of Economics and Labour,,property=pdf.pdf.
(12) For more information on Andreyeva Bay, see the Andreyeva Bay and Naval Foreign Assistance sections of the NIS Nuclear and Missile Database, and, respectively.
(13) For more information on Gremikha, see the Gremikha Naval Base section of the NIS Nuclear and Missile Database,
(14) Data from Shishkin, op. cit.
(15) Various Russian presentations at CEG meetings, 2003.
(16) Conversation with Japanese Foreign Ministry official.
(17) The table “Selected Foreign Assistance Projects in the Naval Sphere” is based on materials compiled from official government websites and laws and communication with international organizations and Russian and US government officials.
(18) The table “Selected Facilities Involved in Submarine Defueling and Dismantlement” is based on materials presented at meetings of the IAEA Contact Expert Group, the author’s interviews with US government personnel, and materials in the NIS Nuclear and Missile Database,

Comments Are Closed