Monday, August 31, 2009

Rusty submarine remains on the seabed



BarentsObserver.com Photo: Bellona

The wreck of the Russian nuclear powered submarine K-159 is still corroding on the bottom of the Barents Sea. Today, it is six years since the submarine sank near the Kildin Island north of Murmansk, an area important for both Russian and Norwegian fisheries.
K-159, a November-class submarine taken out of operation from the Soviet Northern fleet in the late 80-ties, sunk in bad weather while being towed. Nine sailors died when the sub went down, just before the inlet to the Kola Bay in the early morning of August 30, 2003. The submarine was on its way from the Gremikha naval base to the naval yard in Polyarny where it was supposed to be decommissioned.

The two nuclear reactors onboard still contain the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods. Due to the lethal inventory of the reactors, and the on-going corroding process on the already rusty hull, the submarine is considered to be one of the most dangerous objects in the Arctic Oceans.

After K-159 sunk in 2003, the Russian naval command promised to retrieve the submarine sometime in 2004. But 2004 past without lifting the sub, and since then new lifting plans have been postponed, and again postponed.

In 2007, BarentsObserver.com wrote that the St. Petersburg based design and engineering company Malakhit got the order to prepare the lifting plan. Bellona's website wrote last year that in December 2007, the chief of environmental safety for the Russian military, Alevtin Yunak, promised at a meeting between the government and the Military Industrial Commission that the decision would be made by the beginning of 2008.

Also in 2007, a British Ministry of Defense salvage team said they would examine the submarine's two reactors before deciding whether it could be raised from the depth of 238 meters.

Interviewed by The Sunday Times, project leader for salvage and marine at the British Defense Logistics Organization, Morgyn Davis, said there's an element of fear of the unknown here. Davis' team is consulting the Russian authorities regarding K-159. The first thing to do is to get down to the wreck in remote-control submersibles, cut the pontoon wires around the submarine and put sensors on to check for radiation. We think it is flooded with water, so raising it like that, from that depth, would be very difficult, Davis said to The Sunday Times.

As reported by BarentsObserver.com in 2007, radiation monitoring of the sunken submarine started within the framework of the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC). So far, no radiation leakages are reported from K-159.

K-159 is not the only nuclear powered submarine on the seabed in the Arctic Oceans. On April 7, 1989, the prototype submarine Komsomolets sunk south of the Bear Island in the Norwegian Sea. Laying at more than 1600 metres depth, is is slowly corroding with its single nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads. Also in the Kara Sea, east of Novaya Zemlya, old submarines and reactor compartments have been dumped in the sea on purpose. Six reactors with spent nuclear fuel and 10 reactors where the fuel were removed before the dumping are located at different locations along the eastern coast of Novaya Zemlya. All the reactors were dumped because they have been involved in accidents and posed a radiation risk if stored at any of the Northern fleets naval bases at the Kola Peninsula or decomissioned at any of the navbases on Kola or in Severodvinsk in the White Sea.

There are currently no plans to lift the dumped Kara Sea reactor compartments. Several studies have concluded that trying to lift the Komsomolets submarine pose a bigger risk than just leaving it at the seabed. The reactor and two plutonium warheads onboard Komsomolets are partly sealed off to avoid radiation from leak out of the sunken submarine.

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