A cold war era Russian-flagged nuclear-powered freighter, the Sevmorput, recently described as “floating nuclear scrap”, is out of commission and limping along just off the coast of the Canary Islands, this morning some 70 nautical miles south of Gran Canaria, with plans to travel between Gran Canaria and Tenerife. The ship reportedly suffered a rupture in one of the four blades on its sole propeller, and in the shaft, back in October when it was about 500 miles off the coast of Angola, on its way to Antarctica, as part of what the Russians say is a scientific mission.


After several attempts to fix the fault, the origins of which have not been clarified by Atomflot, the shipping company that owns the vessel, the container ship, whose engine has the capacity to hold up to 150 kilos of uranium fuel, has had to turn around to head back to its port base in Saint Petersburg, where they hope to arrive before the New Year. As part of its normal operation, the vessel releases fission products, that is to say nuclear waste.

The presence of the Sevmorput in waters around the Islands has raised alarm at Spain’s Merchant Marine General Directorate, part of the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda, who have contacted the Nuclear Safety Council of Spain for assistance in monitoring the path of the Russian nuclear-powered merchant ship, on his journey through Spanish waters. Spain’s merchant naval command has contacted the captain of the ship, who has responded “formally” that the machinery and mechanical equipment on board all “work properly”, and that during the entire trip there “has not been any incident or breakdown of nuclear equipment on board” saying that they are waiting for weather conditions to improve “in transit areas” until they can reach their port of destination.

Despite this apparently reassuring message from the captain, those in charge at Merchant Marine are concerned. A concern generated primarily by the slow speed of the vessel, at less than ten knots, and the erratic course it is taking on its journey. The Nuclear Safety Council has requested advice and collaboration while the Sevmorput sails along the Spanish coasts.

Launched in 1988 the vessel is one of only four nuclear-powered merchant ships ever built and, after returning to service in 2016 following an extensive refit, it is the only such vessel to remain in service as of 2020.