Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Nuclear Submarine Dismantlement
Nuclear-powered submarines are one of the most potent symbols of the bygone U.S.-Soviet arms race. That arms race left Russia with a dangerous legacy: more than 100 nuclear submarines that must be dismantled and disposed of without causing environmental damage or increasing proliferation risks. While Russia has removed from active status 200 of its 244 Cold War-era submarines, it lacks the money and equipment to scrap them, and it cannot afford to adequately protect the nuclear materials on these vessels as they await dismantlement. While some submarines have been dismantled as part of U.S. assistance programs, progress remains slow and difficult. Scrapping these vessels is an expensive, hazardous, and slow process, and once the submarines have been dismantled, the resulting radioactive spent fuel and radioactive waste must be disposed of in a safe and secure manner. Without additional foreign assistance, the environmental and proliferation threats from Russia's rusting submarines will continue for decades.
From the late 1950s through July 2001, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, built over 250 nuclear vessels, more than all other nations combined. In addition to nuclear submarines (including 81 that carried ballistic missiles, or SSBNs), the Soviet nuclear fleet included four guided-missile cruisers, a small number of scientific research, support, and space-tracking vessels, and seven civilian icebreakers.
Approximately 170 submarines built in the 1960s and 1970s reached the end of their service lives in the late 1980s and early 1990s and were retired. However, the much-diminished Russian defense budget could no longer support even the remaining 80-odd submarines. By May 2000 Russia's nuclear navy had shrunk to 45 operational nuclear submarines, with 28 deployed in the Northern Fleet and 17 in the Pacific Fleet.
Dismantling nuclear submarines is an expensive task, costing an estimated $6 to $10 million per submarine. Yet, there is no good, cheap alternative to dismantling out-of-service submarines. Almost half of Russia's 183 officially decommissioned nuclear submarines still carry full loads of fuel. Since most Russian submarines have two reactors, this means that nearly 150 nuclear reactors must be kept operating in submarines manned by skeleton crews. If these nuclear submarines are not safely defueled and dismantled, their reactors could be damaged or sabotaged, causing widespread environmental damage.
The proliferation threat these vessels pose is global, due to the large amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—the key ingredients of nuclear weapons—contained in their spent fuel. The fresh nuclear fuel used in most Russian submarines is enriched to contain 21-45% uranium-235 (U-235); twenty-four submarines used fuel enriched to 90% U-235. A typical reactor core full of spent fuel may therefore contain dozens of kilograms of U-235, and several kilograms of plutonium-239. Without a system to ensure the safe management of partially dismantled submarines and the nuclear materials removed from them, proliferation-sensitive materials, and perhaps even nuclear fuel, could be stolen.
Another concern is that Russian submarines might be sold rather than scrapped, giving a significant boost in naval power to the recipient country. Russia could then sell proliferation-sensitive HEU fuel to the purchasing country without International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards applying, since the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) does not require such safeguards for naval fuel sales.
Obstacles to DismantlementThree major technical obstacles currently prevent greater progress in Russian submarine dismantlement efforts: (1) inadequate spent fuel storage and transport capabilities; (2) the slow work pace of existing dismantlement lines; and (3) the lack of facilities for long-term storage of highly radioactive reactor compartments. Spent fuel storage sites have not been centralized, making them more difficult to protect, and most are at or beyond capacity. Traditionally, spent submarine fuel was sent by rail to the Mayak Chemical Combine in Siberia, several thousand kilometers away from either coast. During the Soviet era, there were just five railcars capable of safely moving this fuel to Mayak. Even with four new cars, completed in 2000 with Norwegian funds, the backlog is tremendous. Moreover, technical and financial problems have severely slowed the rate of spent fuel reprocessing at Mayak.
Beyond the problem of spent fuel storage, Russia's naval shipyards face critical shortages of equipment, material, personnel, and infrastructure support. There are long lines of vessels waiting to be dismantled at the facilities, which have been receiving Western assistance. In addition, U.S. policy does not provide for the long-term maintenance of equipment provided to the yards, bringing into question the issue of whether these yards will be able to continue their work. Nerpa, a Northern Fleet shipyard, has already begun attack submarine dismantlement, but is not receiving any funding, putting the scrapping in jeopardy. In addition, many decommissioned submarines are located at shipyards without dismantlement equipment.
The lack of plans for final disposition of contaminated reactor compartments is another obstacle to dismantlement. This problem is a serious threat to the environment: Russian experts estimate that these vessels will remain seaworthy only for about 15 years, before salt water rusts through their sides and threatens to sink them. Unfortunately, these hulls will remain radioactive for hundreds of years.
Given its economic problems, Russia has relied upon foreign assistance to support its dismantlement efforts. The United States has provided the most assistance, while Japan, Norway, the European Union, and a few other countries have also contributed funds. United States assistance is provided by the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, administered by the Department of Defense, and the Nuclear Materials Security Task Force Program, run by the Department of Energy (DOE). The CTR program has a mandate to assist in the elimination of 564 launchers for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and the dismantlement of 36 SSBNs, while DOE has pursued programs to upgrade accounting and physical protection at selected sites, provide supplemental physical protection measures for refueling ships, and consolidate fresh fuel to one central facility for each fleet.
Aside from a Japanese project to study the dismantlement of one old Pacific Fleet attack submarine, there are no plans for foreign countries to assist in the dismantlement of more than 140 attack and guided missile submarines, although they make up more than three-quarters of the backlog of submarines awaiting dismantlement. These older vessels are most in danger of sinking; their spent fuel has become less radioactive with age, and therefore less dangerous to handle, but still contains potent bomb-making material. Newer submarines could conceivably be refurbished and re-launched, posing a threat to the United States and other nations. Although assistance programs have done a lot of good in the past decade, much remains to be done to reduce the environmental and proliferation risks of Russia's nuclear navy.
Cristina Chuen and Tamara Troyakova, "The Complex Politics of Foreign Assistance: Building the Landysh in the Russian Far East,"The Nonproliferation Review 8 (Summer 2001), https://cns.miis.edu.
Chunyan Ma and Frank von Hippel, "Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors," The Nonproliferation Review 8 (Spring 2001), https://cns.miis.edu.
James Clay Moltz and Tamara C. Robinson, "Dismantling Russia's Nuclear Subs: New Challenges to Non-Proliferation," Arms Control Today 29 (June 1999), www.armscontrol.org.
The Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Status Report: Nuclear Weapons, Fissile Material, and Export Controls in the Former Soviet Union, No. 6 (June 2001), https://cns.miis.edu.
Cristina Chuen "Ghost of Russia's K-19 Haunts Us," Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2002, www.latimes.com.
James Clay Moltz, "A Tragic, 118-Count Indictment of the Russian Nuclear Navy," Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2000, https://cns.miis.edu.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.
Programs assisting Russia in the dismantlement and security of its decommissioned nuclear submarines and related materials. (CNS)
The threats associated with global submarine proliferation. (CNS)