A Sunken Soviet Submarine Is Leaking Radiation Into The Sea

The wreck of the Komsomolets in the icy depths of the Norwegian Sea. Ægir 6000/Institute of Marine Research Norway

Deep-sea explorers have recently taken a plunge into the icy waters of the Norwegian Sea to survey the sunken remains of a Soviet submarine and discovered it’s seeping radioactive cesium.

With the helping hand of a Ægir 6000 mini-sub, Norway's Institute of Marine Research (IMR) surveyed the wrecked submarine and took samples of the seawater, sediments, and organisms that dwell on the wreck itself. Along with picking up on some suspicious – although not unexpected – levels of radiation, the IMR also captured some stunning new images of the vessel resting on the seabed at a depth of 1,700 meters (5,577 feet).

Komsomolets, which means "member of the Young Communist League", was a 117.5-meter-long (385-foot) nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Soviet Navy during the final years of the Cold War. It sank in the Norwegian Sea on April 7, 1989, with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads still on board after a fire broke out in the engine room due to a short circuit. Of the 69 crew, 42 people were killed, most of whom died of hypothermia while waiting to be rescued. The vessel eventually plummeted to the depths of the seabed between the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean.

An aerial view of a Soviet Mike class nuclear-powered attack submarine underway, similar to Komsomolets. UK Department Of Defense/Public Domain

One of the measurements taken by the IMR detected levels of radioactive cesium that were 800,000 times higher than normal. They believe the source of the leak is a ventilation duct that’s seeping a mysterious cloud into the water, although that’s not been conclusively proven yet. Authorities have stated the levels are not high enough for people (or fish) to worry about. Other samples from the surrounding waters did not register nearly as high values.  

“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,” expedition leader Hilde Elise Heldal said in a statement.

“The levels we detected were clearly above what is normal in the oceans, but they weren’t alarmingly high,” she explained.

“What we have found during our survey has very little impact on Norwegian fish and seafood. In general, cesium levels in the Norwegian Sea are very low, and as the wreck is so deep, the pollution from Komsomolets is quickly diluted.”

The submarine has been the subject of numerous surveys over the past three decades by both Norway and Russia. One study by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment found that the submarine's hull and reactor vessel won't be destroyed by corrosion for at least 1,000 years. 

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