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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Official Frets Over Spent Sub Fuel

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- A nuclear official has raised alarm bells about the storage of spent nuclear fuel from Russian nuclear submarines, saying the facilities used to store the material are inadequate and that security around the facilities is frighteningly lax.

Viktor Akhunov, head of the Nuclear Power Ministry's department of ecology and decommissioning, told an international conference on nuclear security in Vladivostok on Monday that corrosion is eating away at the hulls of 39 ships that store spent nuclear fuel from submarines.

He declined to say where the ships were based or how much fuel they contained, but said the corrosion on their hulls poses "the greatest danger." He said two such ships had been decommissioned over the past two years, and one of them was already six years past its intended life span.

Akhunov also said security is lacking and storage facilities dilapidated at the military bases around the country that store spent nuclear fuel from 170 submarines. Four of those bases are located in the Far East, he said.

Of the 190 Russian submarines that have been decommissioned since the end of the 1980s, only 71 have been dismantled and had their nuclear fuel removed, Akhunov said. Others remain docked off the Pacific coast and in the Arctic Ocean, waiting to be salvaged.

Two of the submarines have had accidents in their reactors, and salvaging them could be dangerous, said Vladimir Shishkin, chief designer of the Nuclear Power Ministry's Institute for Energy Equipment Research and Design, who also spoke at the Vladivostok conference.

The government plans to build a special shelter to store the submarines until the fission capability in their nuclear reactors ends in about 300 years, he said.

Akhunov said the current federal budget assigns the equivalent of $70 million to improve nuclear safety in the country -- the most funding allotted since the breakup of the Soviet Union but still insufficient to meet the program's basic needs. He said Russia plans to salvage 131 submarines by 2010 -- an effort that will cost $3.9 billion.

Akhunov said several projects to improve the storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel are dogged by a lack of funding. He said his ministry was trying to drum up $7 million in foreign funding to upgrade a railroad link that would connect the Zvezda storage plant in the Far East with a reprocessing facility.

He also said a new construction project -- to be a nuclear fuel storage base at Razboinik Bay near Vladivostok -- lacks sufficient funds. The base would store fuel from 19 submarines in the bay that are currently being kept afloat with pontoons.

The Razboinik Bay project gained urgency after two decommissioned submarines sank off the northeastern Kamchatka Peninsula in 1997 and 1999, said Pacific Fleet Vice Admiral Nikolai Yurasov, who oversees nuclear safety in the navy. The submarines were quickly raised and caused no environmental damage, he said.