Do Russia’s sunken nuclear submarines pose environmental danger?

Date:10 September 2020

Governments and environmental groups are worried a rupture of nuclear fuel supplies could cause a nuclear catastrophe, impacting local fishing areas. The Russian government is working to solve the problem, which some experts are calling a potential “Chernobyl in slow motion on the seabed.”

A legacy of the Cold War threatens Russia’s people and environment, potentially irradiating a large portion of the Barents Sea and closing it to commercial fishing. Two Soviet nuclear-powered submarines are sitting on the bottom of the ocean and could unleash their radioactive fuels into the surrounding waters.

The Soviet Union built four hundred nuclear-powered submarines during the Cold War. The vast majority were either scrapped, or still serve with the Russian Navy today. A few subs, however, are trapped in precarious circumstances, lying on the seabed floor with their uranium fuel supplies still intact. The BBC reports on efforts to render two such ships, K-27 and K-159, safe.

The first ship, K-27, was a Soviet Navy submarine prototype equipped with a new liquid metal reactor. In 1968, the six-year-old sub suffered a reactor accident so serious, nine Soviet sailors received fatal doses of radiation. The submarine was scuttled off the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya in 1982 with its reactor still on board.

The second ship, K-159, was a November-class submarine that served a fairly typical career with the Soviet Northern Fleet before retirement in 1989. In 2003, however, the K-159 sank while in the process of being dismantled, killing nine sailors. The ship still resides where it was lost, again with its reactor on board.

Environmentalists in Norway and Russia are concerned that eventually the reactors on both submarines will break down, releasing huge amounts of radiation.

The effects of these leaks could range from increasing local background radiation to declaring local fish and animals off limits, particularly Barents Sea fishing stocks of cod and haddock, costing local fishermen an estimated $1.5 billion a year.

While Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation, Rosatom, has been tasked with cleaning up the ships, the effort is underfunded, resulting in a race against time (and saltwater corrosion).


This article was written by Kyle Mizokami and published to Popular Mechanics on 4 September 2020.

Latest Issue :

Nov-December 2021