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Russian Nuclear Submarines: Decommissioning

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 21 May 1996

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3.3 p.m.

Whether they have offered technical advice and other assistance to the Russian Government as part of an international scheme to help with making safe the decommissioning of redundant Russian nuclear submarines.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, Russia has not sought international assistance in decommmissioning its nuclear submarines, and there is no international scheme specifically working on this issue. However, UK experts from AEA Technology are undertaking a feasibility study for the safe removal and storage of unstable spent nuclear fuel from the Russian support ship the "Lepse" in Murmansk harbour.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. I am glad to think that we are helping in some way. Do the British Government accept that the Russians have a problem in disposing of many submarines containing elements of nuclear reactor engines and that, for reasons of safety and prevention of serious pollution, special measures will be needed that are likely to be expensive?

My Lords, we do accept that there is a real problem. That is why the United Kingdom has been playing a key role, along with our G7 and European Union partners. Real progress is being made in the Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania and Bulgaria. The environmental concerns about a whole range of nuclear safety issues in Russia, including the disposal of nuclear components of obsolete vessels, are well recognised. In addition to the work being done by AEA Technology, MoD and MAFF scientists are also contributing under the auspices of the IAEA to a Russian/Norwegian programme to assess the implications of past dumping operations. Progress is being made. We welcome the Russian commitment last month to accept formally this year an amendment to the 1972 London Convention banning the dumping of all radioactive waste at sea permanently. We expect Russia to adhere to that commitment and we are doing our best to help Russia do so.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that information. Do the Government have any feel as to the extent of the problem north of Murmansk? As the noble Baroness will be aware, there are press stories that many nuclear reactors from Russian submarines have simply been dumped in the sea without any protection at all. Is there any estimate as to how many and what the effect might be?

My Lords, I, too, read the Sunday Telegraph article. It is very difficult to know the precise figures since they are literally known only to the Russians. We believe that at least 70 submarines have been decommissioned, although spent nuclear fuel has been removed from only 21. The most urgent problem probably relates to 10 submarine reactors which, either as a result of accidents or solidification of liquid metal coolant, are known to be impractical or impossible to defuel. In relation to the number of submarines to be decommissioned by the end of the millennium, I have heard estimates of as many as 150. There is a huge job to be done. It is very expensive; the cost is possibly as high as 4 billion dollars. Funding will be required from the international financial institutions as well as from Russia itself. We are working through TACIS and various other programmes to give all the help we can.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report of the Bellona Foundation on the Russian Northern Fleet, in respect of which Alexander Nikitin, one of the co-authors, has been charged with espionage and high treason, notwithstanding the fact that all the information contained in the report was already in the public domain? Is the Minister aware that the report claims that 18 per cent. of the world's nuclear reactors are in the Kola Peninsular and that the risks involved in their inadequate storage and handling may be compared with the risk from a slow-motion Chernobyl? Will the Government, together with our partners in the European Union, make representations to the Russians in regard to the treatment of Mr. Nikitin and raids on the offices of the Bellona Foundation? Will they ask the Russians if they will enter into discussions with the international community on how best these appalling risks—which affect not just northern Russia and Norway but the whole of Europe—can best be solved?

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a large number of questions. We know that Mr. Nikitin worked for the Norwegian environmental group, as the noble Lord said; he wrote, with another, the report on the storage of spent fuel and waste from Russian naval reactors in the Murmansk region; he was arrested last February; he was accused of passing secret and top secret information on the Russian Northern Fleet to Bellona Although this is a matter for the Russian authorities, we are watching closely. Our ambassador in Moscow has raised this case. I understand that Mr. Nikitin has now been allowed access to a lawyer; and we expect Russia to follow the due process of the law.

Whatever the reports and efforts of this organisation or any individual, the problem is there. That is why we have been in the forefront of international efforts in trying to make sure that as many high-risk civil reactors, as well as any other nuclear spent fuels, are made as safe as they can be. That is why a sum of over 100 million ecus has been committed to nuclear fuel recycling and radioactive projects, of which we pay some 16 per cent. We are working hard to resolve this matter.