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By Commander George F. Kraus, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
of obsolete nuclear submarines has presented Russia with enormous problems. Civilian protests, fueled by the memory of Chernobyl, have caused temporary halts in the already painfully slow defueling process.
The Soviet Navy has disappeared as a separate entity, but what is happening in the Russian Navy—and in the navies of the now-independent republics—remains relevant and important for the United States and the U.S. Navy. Russia is a country in transition; this is also true of its military forces, including its navy. The declining economy and the wholesale changes in the planning, financing, build-
ing, and supporting of the navy have had a major impact on force structure, readiness, and operations. Furthermore, many of the 15 independent countries of the former Soviet Union are establishing their own military forces from the remnants of the Soviet military.
Much of the recent literature and naval commentary from Russia has discussed
the declining size of the Russian Navy. Partially completed ships—such as the “new-generation heavy aircraft carrier” formerly under construction at Niko- layev—now reportedly are being dismantled rather than completed. Moreover, the Russians are facing substantial block obsolescence of nuclear submarines and surface ships built in the 1960s and 1970s, and these ships are coming out of the inventory in substantial numbers. One result has been a large backlog in nuclear-submarine dismantlement, nuclear-material storage, and waste handling. The potential scale of this problem is enormous, and the lack of plans or resources to accommodate the required work has been highlighted frequently. Moreover, the population in the vicinity of many of the dismantlement and storage facilities has been activated by the specter of Chernobyl, and they are making themselves heard.
The process of defueling the submarines in order to begin the scrapping process began some time ago, at least as early as 1987 in the Pacific. The capacity for defueling was one submarine per year at that time; by 1991, this had been expanded to “four or five” per year, according to Captain First Rank Smirnov, the Chief of Technical Maintenance of Nuclear Submarines in the Pacific Fleet Technical Directorate. At the rate of four or five per fleet area per year, just to defuel the current inventory of retiring boats (29 in the queue now in the Pacific and more than 30 in the Northern Fleet—a total that will probably reach more than 100 in the next few years) may take ten years or more—and defueling is but the first step in scrapping these boats.
In addition, the defueling of these units in various locations has created a civilian backlash. Fueled by the memory of Chernobyl, a number of protests have occurred in both fleet areas, and reports in December and January from Murmansk indicate that this effort has caused a temporary halt in the defueling, with a moratorium on dismantling being announced °n 5 January by the administrator of the Murmansk oblast government. However, later in January, Red Star reported that the moratorium extended only until early May, and submarine dismantlement continues on the “more than 30” submarines that Rear Admiral Rogachev, Chief of the Northern Fleet Technical Directorate, reports are waiting to be dismantled. Civilian concerns with nuclear submarine dismantlement in the Far East also have led to protests in Sovetskaya Gavan.
Dismantlement problems go beyond the protests and the absence of sufficient resources and suitable waste reposito- ries—although these are substantial issues. Captain Smirnov, in a May article ln Rossiyskaya gazeta highlights the impact of an independent Ukraine on the dismantlement process:
• . . the distinguished Mister
Kravchuk, President of Ukraine, has his own “naval” program. And it does not envisage the construction of floating bases for refueling reactors fi.e., nuclear-refueling barges, formerly built in the Ukraine], The nikolayevtsy [workers at the Nikolayev plant] have ceased building them. And workers at the “Zvezda” plant, an enterprise specializing in nuclear-submarine repair, are not permitting cores to be unloaded on their premises.
Although the Soviets built five submarine construction yards and expanded ibese facilities over the years, the repair and overhaul infrastructure always has *agged behind. As these facilities are
the locus of dismantlement, their relative scarcity has affected the rate at which the process can proceed. The reported pace of actual dismantlement is quite slow— particularly in view of the queue—with only one submarine having been dismantled (as of last fall) in the Pacific, and two others there in various stages of being dismantled. Captain Smirnov notes:
Calculations show that, based on the rates of nuclear submarine scrapping and preparing them for long-term mooring—rates laid out in the governmental and departmental decisions—the navy will not be rid of these boats until the year 2010!
At least part of the problem is the tools and methods used in the dismantling. In the Pacific, cutting hulls still is reliant on “ancient oxygen torches.” Technical limitations result in a process that is largely manual and slow, and seem destined to prevent the navy from meeting the growing demand. Moreover, another observer notes that there is “no state program for the salvaging of weapons and military equipment; therefore, there is also no money.” With the political and economic turmoil continuing, and with little likelihood of state funding returning to its former levels, this shortfall may persist.
There are other deficiencies beyond the lack of resources. At Petrovka, for example, disposing of the reactor compartments presents another difficulty. Captain Smirnov laments:
This current idea of piling things up, where retiring obsolete nuclear submarines is concerned, has led to a dead-end situation. We do not now have any repositories for reactor compartments cut out of boats, and they won’t appear until the beginning of the 21st century.
The shipyards have been squeezed by the shift from a command economy. A Red Star report from the large submarine building yard at Severodvinsk claims that military conversion there is being carried out “in too much of a hurry and [we] have thrown the baby out with the bath water.” The “destructive consequences” of conversion have resulted in reduced productivity, the loss of trained people, and the “inevitable decline in the quality of the work force. . . .” Furthermore, delivery discipline (enforced in the past by central fiat) and quality on the part of subcontractor suppliers to the shipbuilding enterprises have declined. This directly impacts the ability of the shipyards to do operational repair and new construction, as well as dismantlement.
Another recent change that may affect submarine dismantlement is the Yeltsin decree announced in Red Star on 8 May designating the Severodvinsk shipyard as the “State Center for Submarine Construction” for Russia, and indicating that the other submarine yards will be converted to “civilian tasks.” This may open the other facilities, previously devoted to submarine construction, for participation in dismantlement, but its impact remains to be seen.
Fleet Supply (Rear Services) and Training Problems
The shipyards are not the only part of the navy infrastructure facing reduced resources. The decline is felt in particularly acute fashion at the unit level in the fleet. Red Star describes the impact on the “military settlements” in the Northern Fleet. As most of these facilities are above the Arctic Circle, winter lasts “from October until May,” and the demands upon utilities and transport networks are particularly severe. As the Chief of the Maritime Engineering Service of the Fleet observed, there has been an absence of adequate investment and the fleet has been forced to borrow to meet its requirements. Because of a lack of funds, they cannot sign contracts for the delivery of materials required for current maintenance, and even employee wages are being paid from bank loans. Setting up stocks in preparation for the future is out of the question. State enterprises, forced to shift for themselves in the transition to a market, are not making deliveries to the military. Supplies exist, but they are being sold at market prices and thus are often “ten times as expensive as former state prices.”
With no means of adjusting the fleet’s income to meet the higher prices, the supply situation has become critical. Such shortfalls affect morale and the ability of units to maintain even a modicum of readiness.
Training is another problem for the submarine force. The operating tempo has been continually reduced since the mid- 1980s, and much training has come ashore—although there is a lack of suitable shore-based training devices. In the past, training began at the submarine school at Paldiski and then moved to fleet certification training on board an individual boat. Crews rotated back through Paldiski periodically after operational deployment and leave, before returning to the fleet. Two problems reported in Red Star last October and December now affect that sequence.
While Paldiski remains the only training facility for submariners, it is located in now-independent Estonia—no longer even in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), much less Russia. “Indeed, Paldiski is now abroad: you cannot go there without visas, without agreement with the republic government.” Moreover, the prototype reactors at Paldiski (at least two) have been shut down. Any crew training there, once visas are obtained, takes place on simulators. The facility director, Rear Admiral Borisov, notes that “The exercises were more realistic and effective when they could be carried out in reality, with the reactor in full operation.”
Dealing With Nuclear Waste
The problems of the nuclear submarine force have a lengthy history, and they are associated with an equally long history of shoddy practice in the disposal of nuclear materials and nuclear waste. A March article in the weekly newspaper Sobesednik included a large map of the former Soviet Union that showed nuclear waste disposal sites, locations of nuclear- related accidents, and areas of radioactive contamination—including most of the nuclear submarine facilities. It reminds us that, in addition to the units being retired and dismantled, there are previously “damaged” units awaiting disposal in both fleet areas. Smirnov observes that, in the Pacific Fleet, there are three “. . . retired boats that had suffered nuclear accidents. They have been permanently moored for 13 years.” These problem units complicate an already difficult process.
Furthermore, the lack of a plan for storage or disposal of submarine reactor compartments may add to the list of contaminated areas. Captain Smirnov in his May article proposes a regional radioactive waste depository “in a selected coastal sea area.” He describes the issue in the following terms:
N. Bisovka, an executive of the Russian State Atomic Oversight [agency] is outraged that I am developing a burial site for radioactive wastes by storing the compartments at sea. . . . But, nevertheless, what is safer to store? A technically prepared, packaged, hermetic, visually observable compartment on the sea floor, or an unprepared submarine with myriad holes in the outer hull, afloat?
It is not clear what neighboring countries will think of this disposal practice, however “temporary” in concept.
The scale of the nuclear-submarine dismantling problem facing the Russian Navy is daunting. The impact on the shipbuilding and repair infrastructure will be substantial and long lasting, and the whole effort is severely complicated by the issues of waste handling and disposal. With resources so stretched, it is not clear from where the needed investment and technology will come. In a society traumatized by Chernobyl, however, the message of concern from the population is stark and filled with foreboding. An example is the lead to Captain Smirnov’s article in May:
In one of the bays at a Pacific Fleet base there is dead silence. Watchful, deceptive silence. Dozens of submarines are growing stiff with cold, laid-up for a long period near residential villages—a delayed-action nuclear mine, ready at any moment to burst out of its casing.
Mr. Kraus is a senior analyst in the Foreign Systems Research Center of Science Applications International Corporation in Greenwood Village, Colorado. His area specialties include U.S. and Soviet naval operations and military intelligence. He has served at the senior staff level in the Navy and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and has taught at the Naval War College during more than 20 years of naval service.
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