Norwegian researchers used a remote-controlled submersible to explore the wreck of a Soviet sub sitting in over 5,500 feet of water for the past 30 years and discovered its nuclear warheads and reactor are still emitting radiation at 800,000 times the normal background level.
The Norwegian Institute of Marine Research characterized the findings as noteworthy but not a cause for alarm, since the deep waters quickly dilute radiation and there is not much marine life in the area that could be affected by it.
The wreck has been monitored annually since the submarine Komsomolets sank in 1989 but has never before been studied so closely by a remote device.
The remote was able to extract samples that showed radioactive cesium leaking from one of the Russian sub’s ventilation pipes during a survey that began on July 7. Water samples taken from the nearby area displayed much lower levels of radiation, suggesting the contamination has not spread far beyond the wreckage.
“This is, of course, a higher level than we would usually measure out at sea but the levels we have found now are not alarming,” said expedition leader Hilde Elise Heldal.
“We took water samples from inside this particular duct because the Russians had documented leaks here both in the 1990s and more recently in 2007, so we weren’t surprised to find high levels here,” she explained.
Heldal said samples were also taken from the torpedo compartment to determine if the warheads are leaking radiation, but it will take some time to complete laboratory analysis of those samples.
“It is important that the monitoring of the nuclear submarine continues so that we have updated knowledge about the pollution situation in the area around the wreck,” she said. “The monitoring helps to ensure consumer confidence in the Norwegian fishing industry.”
The sinking of the Komsomolets is regarded as one of the worst submarine accidents in history. It was a unique deep-diving nuclear-powered attack sub with at least two plutonium warheads on board when a fire broke out, killing 42 sailors from either toxic inhalation or exposure to the freezing Norwegian Sea when they tried to abandon ship. Another 27 crew members survived the incident. The sub sank about 100 miles from Norway’s Bear Island.
In addition to Heldal’s description of the need to reassure Norwegian fishermen the local food chain has not been contaminated by radiation, the other obvious reason for intense interest in the latest survey of the Komsomolets is that Norway just assisted Russia with a disturbingly similar accident, a fire that killed 14 sailors aboard a mysterious submarine Moscow has depicted as a deep-sea research vessel.
The Russians were very slow to admit the sub was nuclear-powered, but a Russian naval officer credited the crew with preventing a “planetary catastrophe” at their funeral service this week.