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Grigory Pasko: A German Approach and a Russian Slogan

A German Approach and a Russian Slogan By Grigory Pasko, journalist When I first met with Energiewerke Nord GmbH (EWN) director Dieter Rittscher in June of this year, he reported that his company is taking part in the process of the dismantling of Russian nuclear submarines. Because important questions like this deserve more than just a passing mention, it was decided that he and I would have to meet again to give them the time they deserve. And so it was that my interpreter Bernhard Clasen and I found ourselves once again in Lubmin – a small resort town located on the shore of the Baltic Sea not far from Greifswald.

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The Energiewerke Nord GmbH office building in Lubmin (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

The office building of the company EWN is located on the territory of the former Nord nuclear power station. The large room where delegations are welcomed has a map of the gas pipelines of Russia and Europe. We were met by Dieter Rittscher and two of his assistants, Jürgen Ramthun, whom we’d met on our last visit, and the head of the nuclear submarine decommissioning project, Gottfried Barth. Herr Barth made a small report of sorts, from which it became clear that on the whole, EWN is satisfied with its cooperation with Russian partners (I would venture to guess that the Russian side has no reason to complain about the German colleagues, either). What specifically have the Germans done? First, a storage facility for decommissioned nuclear sub reactor sections is nearly built. This is probably the most important component in the entire process of dismantling and disposal. I still recall the opinion of specialists from the times of my trips around the Pacific Fleet as a journalist: it makes sense to dismantle a boat only when there will be a storage facility for the reactors and radioactive waste. Today in Russia – both in the Northern Fleet and in the Pacific Fleet – all the storage facilities have been filled, as they say, up to the gills, for a long time already. Some of them are in need of urgent repair, and nearly all of them need upgrading. Before slicing up a nuclear-powered ship into pieces, you need to know not only where you will store the triple-partition blocks (the reactor section and the two adjacent “slices” of the submarine), but also why you’re going to store it: as is known, not a single country in the world has the technology for safely disposing of nuclear waste. In other words, all that can be done today with all those carved up nuclear innards (or, if you will, the legacy of the cold war) is to store them someplace safe until better days. For example, in specialized storage facilities, until such a time as our children or grandchildren finally figure out what to do with all that nasty junk that we, their dear parents, created for them. In 2002 in the small Canadian town of Kananaskis within the framework of the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction initiative it was planned to allocate 1.5 billion US dollars out of the 20 million announced by all the participant-states in the meeting for a nuclear direction, the decommissioning of nuclear submarines, the rehabilitation of contaminated territories, and processing spent nuclear fuel. Russia’s contribution was 600 million dollars. Russia was constantly complaining that out of the planned 1.5 million it received only a mere 200 million approximately. Likewise Russian (apparently not without political populism) declared that it would dismantle its boats by the year 2010. If foreign partners give money, it goes without saying. But the partners weren’t anxious to give money for various reasons. One of them was, in fact, the absence of storage facilities for the reactors and radioactive waste. A second one, which for a long time was just about the main one – Russia demanded money, explaining most murkily where it would go. To the question “where?” it answered: this is secret information. Certain chekists got so enthusiastic about secretiveness that the entire decommissioning process came under threat. I recall how at one of the international conferences in Washington in 2005, dedicated to the realization of projects for the decommissioning of nuclear submarines, even a representative of the Russian embassy was forced to admit that secrecy gets in the way of the entire process. Since then, they have begun – albeit very reluctantly – to allow foreigners (and not only specialists, but sometimes even Western journalists) to visit secret facilities. As before, however, it is customary to regard one’s own journalists as spies.

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Mothballed Russian nuclear submarines (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

The situation these days is like this: Around 200 nuclear subs have been taken out of service in Russia. About 60 of them have nuclear fuel on board. The overall cost of all the work of dismantling them, in the opinion of Rosatom specialists, will comprise 4 billion dollars. The completion date of the process is the year 2010, under the condition of the dismantling of 18 boats per year. The bulk of them (13 out of 18), Russia promises to chop up by its own efforts, but for the remaining 5 subs per year it needs the financial assistance of Western countries (As S. Akhunov, a representative of Rosatom, which is responsible for decommissioning the subs, once said in a speech, “We need money. And preferably quicker and more!” This heartfelt cry of a bureaucrat seemed to me in fact to be the motto of the entire rule of V. Putin and his entourage). And speaking of speeches… At one of the meetings of an expert-contact group under the aegis of the IAEA, the former deputy head of Rosatom, Sergei Antipov, said the following phrase: “If the Russian side clearly shows how much money has been received, then far from all the partners show how much has been spent by them.” Fact is, usually the lion’s share of the funds that this or the other country promises to allocate for the dismantling of nuclear submarines, as a rule, remains in that country – in the form of expenses for expert studies and expert opinions and for the manufacture of equipment for the dismantling of the subs. But the Russian official’s phrase cited above contains the whole point of the mutual relations: Russia demands not only real money, but also a scrupulous answer with respect to the spending of the promised funds by the Western countries (and this is fair). But at the same time, Russia itself not only doesn’t say how much of the funds from those already allocated have been spent, but also on what specifically it has been spent and on what those funds that Russia is asking for will be spent. Be that as it may, the process is moving along. In the words of Gottfried Barth, the storage facility in Sayda Bay is intended to hold submarine 120 reactor sections. It is planned to build a facility with the name “Regional Center for Disposition and Storage” – for 40 reactor sections and for 18 “large objects” – by which are meant ships of the auxiliary support fleet that had had problems or accidents but for the cutting up of which into manageable sections the technology does not yet exist. German money has been used to build cement “tombs” for the reactor sections and support platforms for these enclosures. Repair of a floating dock has been carried out. Two tugboats have been repaired for German money and one specially purchased in Greece. Much money has gone for the repair of the dockyards and equipping them with lift cranes. At the first stage of financing, Germany proposes to assimilate 300 million euros. Another 300 million euros at the second stage in the period from 2009 through 2014. And so we finally come to EWN – the German company that has been entrusted to use a billion and a half euros of German money for the dismantling of Russian nuclear submarines. I ask my first question: Doesn’t it seem illogical to you that Russia, on the one hand, is asking/demanding money for the dismantling of its own nuclear subs, but on the other, without skipping a beat, is building new ones? The answer is diffuse and, in my opinion, not convincing: The Americans, or so they say, are also arming themselves. And we Germans don’t like this. A balance is needed. (Strange logic, as it seems to me. If I live between two hostile neighbors, and both of them are arming themselves before my very eyes, then this shouldn’t make me calm, it should on the contrary make me doubly afraid.). How do you protect your money from, to put it mildly, non-targeted use? The answer was detailed and precise: We sign many small-scale contracts and count every euro. In the event of a change in the situation, we definitely reflect this in amendments to the contracts. We are audited by the German auditing chamber. We feel a sense of responsibility before the taxpayers.

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EWN project manager Gottfried Barth talks about dismantling nuclear submarines in Russia (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

What do you know about those projects that other countries are carrying out? Response: The international coordination committee, which monitors the actual process of dismantling and the participation in it of those countries that had signed the Kananaskis agreement. It is known that the Norwegians, the English, and the Canadians are going to finance the dismantling of the subs; the French – the support vessels «Lotta» and «Lepse»; on top of that, the English are going to participate in the reconstruction of the storage facility in Andreev Bay. The Italians have gotten the contract for the disposition of one nuclear sub at the «Nerpa» plant. What things don’t you like about your Russian partners and what do you like about them? Answer: We don’t like that the burden of the past continues to weigh so heavily: sometimes secrecy for no reason, other times distrust of partners, foot-dragging in certain processes. What we like is that there’s less and less of this. In addition, the Russians have learned how to write contracts. And also, we practically don’t have a language barrier: certain of our specialists not only know the Russian language, they actually studied in the USSR. It should be noted that the EWN representatives literally illustrated all of their explanations and responses with documents, photographs, charts, and slides. When the German businessmen offered me “Why don’t you just come yourself and see what we’re building and how near Murmansk”, I had to remind them of the “sometimes secrecy for no reason” of the Russians, and also about their pathological disease: they see spies looking everywhere. In actuality, of course, it’s not spies that certain Russian government officials are afraid of, but the truth, the openness of their business… If the Germans have nothing to hide, then they both show, and tell, if not everything, then just about everything. By the way, I am going to try to continue my efforts to convince Rosatom that it is incorrect in thinking that journalists are its enemies. After my meeting with EWN management, I visited a nuclear waste storage facility – one of the largest in Europe. Everything there is strictly scientific. All requirements are observed. The facilities are huge and clean. I was particularly impressed by the lift cranes with 200 and 400 metric tons of hoisting capacity and the carts for moving around the containers with the nuclear material (they were gigantic in the literal sense of the word). Even ordinary looking barrels for storing radioactive waste turned out to be of complex construction.

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Radioactive waste storage facility in Lubmin (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

The question just begged to be asked: How much electricity was used to create these monsters that serve the nuclear legacy? And will somebody someday ever write at least one line somewhere in the laws about the need to take these expenses into account, as well as the expenses for the liquidation of the effects of nuclear accidents, when calculating the cost of a nuclear kilowatt-hour?! But I guess these are just rhetorical questions. Rhetorical in certain countries of the West. And completely senseless in Russia: there, there was only a resounding “hurrah!” when the government (hurrah!) adopted a program for the construction of 26 new nuclear blocs in the next 10 years. The time will come, and Russian specialists will come to Germany, for example to the company EWN, with a request to be taught how to shut down a nuclear power plant and how to safely store radioactive waste. But for now, the reigning slogan in Russia is: Give us money! More of it and quickly!