Freighter with nuclear supplies shrouded in mystery
From KIMO and NFLA*
Update: Since the story below appeared, according to the Barents Observer, on February 9, 2002, the ice-breaker Arktika has rescued the stranded ships and started a several thousand kilometre long escort operation across the Northern Sea Route. In the convoy are two cargo ships, the diesel-engined icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn and the nuclear-powered container ship Sevmorput. However, concerns remain about any nuclear leaks that may have occurred during the stranding. Several shipping companies expressed criticism of ROSATOM’s handling of the situation saying it was not adequately prepared for the conditions.
KIMO International and the UK/Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities, two organisations campaigning for pollution-free oceans have expressed their concerns at the possible danger posed to the marine environment by a Russian nuclear-powered freighter stranded in the Russian Far East.
The Sevmorput (or Northern Sea Route) is the sole survivor of Russia’s original fleet of four nuclear powered cargo ships which traversed the Arctic trade routes. Sevmorput has now been operational for over thirty years, and though refitted within the last decade, is showing her age with recent voyages plagued by mechanical breakdowns. Her latest transit of the Northern Sea Route which links North Western Russia to Eastern Siberia ended badly.
The Sevmorput was ordered in 1978 and was completed more than a decade later. With a maximum seasonal displacement of 62,000 tons and 260 metres in length, the ship is powered by a single 135 MWt reactor at a maximum speed of 21 knots. With an ice-breaking capacity, the ship can pass through 1 metre thick ice at a speed of 2 knots.
Operated by the Murmansk Shipping Company for her first twenty years of service, the Sevmorput was transferred to ATOMFLOT, the mercantile marine subsidiary of ROSATOM, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, in 2008.
In early November 2021 the Sevmorput set sail from western Russia to Vladivostok, via the Arctic with a cargo of reactor parts, intended for transshipment to another vessel for onward transport to the Rooppur nuclear project in Bangladesh. The Rooppur plant is being built under contract by ROSATOM. During the passage, sea ice conditions worsened, but the Sevmorput, with nuclear propulsion and its ice-breaking capability, was able to battle through to Vladivostok.
Other shipping was less fortunate with a significant number of vessels becoming frozen fast in the Arctic, necessitating rescue by ROSATOM’s fleet of nuclear-powered ice breakers. Amongst them were ships carrying supplies to the copper and gold mines and processing plants at Pevek in the remote Chukotka region of Eastern Siberia and undefined spare parts and equipment for the Russian floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Alexander Lomonosov which supplies Pevek with its heat and power; these cargoes remained undelivered.
In a response to the set-back, ROSATOM assigned the Sevmorput to hasten back to Murmansk, collect the supplies for Pevek and deliver them by early January. The ship was unable to carry out the assignment and it fell instead to ROSATOM’s newest icebreaker Arktica, escorting three cargo ships, to carry out this task.
For unexplained reasons, the Sevmorput has remained moored and immobile for almost two months, first at Nakohodka around 85 kms away from Vladivostok and then from early January anchored in an offshore ‘dry cargo holding area’ about 10kms away from the port. Here she is being attended to by another mysterious Russian vessel, identified only as ‘SPK-44150’, which has moored alongside the freighter.
ROSATOM has not explained why the Sevmorput was unable to sail to Pevek and has made no statement as to why the Sevmorput has been immobile for so long or about her current condition.
Commenting, Councillor Jerry Ahlström, President of KIMO International, said:
“Any leaks of radioactive material at sea will enter the marine environment where containment and remediation are near impossible. The lack of transparent emergency planning in the event of a marine accident involving nuclear materials and the question of liability and compensation in the event of a nuclear accident at sea raises huge concerns for KIMO’s coastal authority members.
“The consistent lack of decision-making input, of consultation and of information and transparency on shipping routes means they are left facing a real and present risk of harm that disempowers the very communities who health and livelihoods depend upon the sea.”
Commenting, Councillor David Blackburn, Chair of the NFLA Steering Committee, said:
“The NFLA is concerned that the immobility and isolation of this nuclear-powered vessel away from prying eyes for so long might indicate that there has been some kind of nuclear accident on board or that the vessel has suffered some equipment failure that seriously compromises nuclear safety on the ship.
“Our fear is of course that such a scenario might lead to an escape of radioactive materials into the atmosphere or into our oceans, where currents might carry it to distant shores compromising the health of the Pacific environment or its inhabitants. It would be helpful if ROSATOM made a statement about the condition of this vessel and the mysterious activities of the SPK-44150″.
Kommunernes International Miljøorganisation (KOMO, Local Authorities International Environmental Organisation) was founded in Denmark in 1990. Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) represents England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and is the local government voice on nuclear issues.
Headline photo of the Russian nuclear-powered cargo ship, Sevmorput, by Терский берег/Wikimedia Commons