Russia now dismantles about 17 to 20 decommissioned nuclear submarines every year. Experts working for the nation's Atomic Energy Ministry believe that these optimal rates will be maintained in 2004. Indeed, the Government supported this position at its last session in late 2003, because it would be imprudent to proceed with unnecessary speed in this extremely dangerous and responsible sphere.
Over the last five years, 94 submarines have been dismantled, while another 99 nuclear submarines are awaiting the same fate at their quays on the Barents Sea and the Okhotsk Sea. Indeed, plans are in place to scrap all the decommissioned submarines by the year 2010.
I know that the Russian and international public are above all worried about the future of those submarines, which are continuing to rust away in the salt water. However, I want to assure everyone that decommissioned submarines are being monitored accordingly. Each vessel has its own skeleton crew, which assesses all the required ship-safety parameters, including nuclear-environmental safety measures.
Why does Russia have so many decommissioned submarines? This extremely difficult and unprecedented problem dates back to the Soviet period. During the Cold War, the nation's leaders did their best to attain nuclear-missile parity with the United States. Consequently, they reinforced the country's military potential, without paying much attention to long-term aspects. In all, 250 nuclear submarines were launched, with 25-year service lives, on average. However, no one had any misgivings about their future.
The political climate changed in the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev launched his perestroika drive. The Kremlin then ordered its top brass to cut the nuclear submarine fleet by three-fourths. Between 15 and 20 submarines were supposed to be scrapped every year, but the available technical infrastructure could only handle 3-4 submarines. Western and eastern Russian ship-repair factories had accumulated 138 decommissioned submarines by 1998. Many of their hulls were corroded, while 124 submarines still had their nuclear weapons onboard.
In May 1998, the Government adopted a special resolution on scrapping nuclear submarines and reclaiming high-radiation naval facilities. The Atomic Energy Ministry, rather than the Russian Navy, was ordered to coordinate and supervise this programme. This was no coincidence, as the main problem is connected with shutting down the submarines' reactors and ensuring their safe storage. Moreover, operation-and-maintenance consequences must be dealt with accordingly. The Atomic Energy Ministry then opted for a co-production arrangement to scrap decommissioned submarines on a large scale, involving R&D agencies and industrial enterprises in this work.
The submarine-dismantling process includes some highly complicated operations, which are fraught with radiation, chemical and toxic risks. Expensive safety measures have to be implemented; in fact, top-priority projects in this field cost an estimated $4 billion, which is why Russia is so eager to accept foreign aid.
In 2004, two billion rubles in federal-budget appropriations will be set aside for that purpose (one dollar costs about 29 rubles - Ed.) Consequently, Moscow will be able to scrap 15 submarines, while even more submarines will be dismantled if the country receives foreign funding. As a rule, Russia's overseas partners agree to finance specific projects at their own discretion, i.e. they allocate money for submarine-dismantling operations, spent-fuel containers or container trains. In reality, though, the submarine-recycling programme has much broader implications. For example, the country lacks specialised coastal facilities for storing nuclear-reactor fuel, which is between five and even 50 times richer than nuclear power plant fuel. The lack of such facilities compels our specialists not only to cut out reactor, but also two neighbouring compartments, after which, the submarines are then kept afloat with pontoons. German partners are now helping build fuel compounds in the Murmansk region's Saida estuary. The German side provides material, technical and intellectual assistance.
The Atomic Energy Ministry has teamed up with three independent Russian organisations to compile a strategic plan to encompass all aspects of the scrapping process, while highlighting their sequence. For their own part, financial donors held a conference in London in mid-December 2003 and approved this proposed master plan.