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Dutch marine experts haul decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines

Highly specialized ships take vessels to scrap yard

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

BREDA – An international Dutch maritime transportation firm has swayed a nay-saying Russian defense minister from his hard line decision to keep moth-balled nuclear powered submarines at their decommissioning base. Dockwise, which owns a fleet of fifteen of the world’s eighteen highly specialized semi-submergible heavy duty carriers, has won the contract to move three nuclear submarines to a scrap yard. The reluctance of the Russians to move the submarines stems from a tragedy in 2003 when nine members out of a crew of ten died aboard a submarine which sank while being towed.

Anchored in the northern Barentsz Sea, the nuclear submarines belong to a fleet of 116 such navy vessels all waiting to be dismantled. The Russians however had lost their appetite for this type of operation but were encouraged by other governments and private groups with foreign financial help to pursue their policy of scrapping decommissioned navy vessels. The hauling of two of the three submarines was paid for by Canada, the third by a consortium of groups from various countries. Dockwise has moved submarines before but none of the nuclear class.

The Brabant company adopted the rules for workers at the Dutch nuclear power plant of Borssele as its standards for the potentially dangerous cargo move. Its safety policy calls for no greater exposure to radiation than a person would face anywhere in Dutch society, although government standards for moving nuclear materials allow much greater latitude for the duration of the job. An escape clause gives Dockwise the right to abandon the job if radiation levels surpass the standards agreed upon with the Russians. The company does not expect to experience such problems however and is eager to pick up the work for the other 116 redundant nuclear class submarines slated for the scrap yard.


The contract to Dockwise is interesting but small in comparison to the company’s other jobs which have been as large as moving oil drilling platforms. Its semi-submergible ships operate on the same principle as repair docks for ships. To maneuver such vessels underneath an oil drilling platform or a submarine for that matter, the crew fills the ship’s ballast tanks which hold up to 50 million litres of water (comparable to twenty large public swimming pools). Once the twelve to sixteen-hour filling job is completed, only the guideposts on the deck and the ship’s control centre remain visible above the waterline. The vessel then takes on its cargo and secures it, followed by the procedures to raise the ship with its cargo by pumping out water tanks.

The hauling of such cargo aboard a semi-submergible is far preferable over towing, say Dockwise officials. Their method is substantially faster and allows the ship enough time to outdistance or avoid most rough weather spells. Even if the ship with its cargo passes through a storm, the cargo will be much safer aboard than when it is being tossed behind a tugboat as the Russians already saw to their detriment. Considering those factors, the work by Dockwise is no luxury for the Russians or others. However, the effort to sway a firm ‘njet’ into a contract may well have been the greater achievement for Dockwise.