Upon initial examination, it may seem quite surprising to imagine that a Russian nuclear submarine that sank near the Arctic more than 30 years ago may still be leaking radiation, however, the concern persisted for many years, according to a group of Norwegian researchers.
Such a circumstance has actually existed for years, and a joint team of Russian and Norwegian researchers tested seawater samples and were able to determine that water around the K-278 Komsomolets submarine was 100,000 times more radioactive than uncontaminated water. The findings, unveiled in 2019, raise troubling questions about the short and long-term impact of having radioactive water surrounding the boat at the bottom of the Barents Sea.
“The findings raise concerns that the boat is now actively leaking radiation, either from its reactor or a pair of nuclear-armed torpedoes, after sitting at the bottom of the Barents Sea for more than three decades,” an essay on the submarine in the Drive from 2019 explains.
The Drive essay also highlights the process through which researchers were able to collect water from 5,500 feet below the surface about 100 miles Southwest of Norway’s Bear Island in the Barents Sea. The incident, and its potential long-term implications, raise relevant questions regarding the need to safeguard, secure and responsibly[ manage and dispose of radioactive material. This is particularly relevant in light of the fact that the Norwegian findings arrive at a time of great international tensions between the US and Russia.
The boat was called Soviet Project 685, and the Norwegian researchers discovered that the leaking radioactive material likely came from its reactor or from nuclear armed torpedoes. Part of the leaking took place because, the essay explains, the submarine was at the bottom of the Barents Sea for more than 30-years.
The contaminated water was collected by a Norwegian-designed remotely operated Egir 600 submersible which did deep diving to collect water samples from the ventilation pipe. The research was conducted by Norway’s Institute of Marine Research and Norway’s University of Bergen.
One of the samples, according to the findings, returned with the extremely elevated radiation reading, however researchers were initially clear that the findings were preliminary. Nonetheless, the researchers called for continued monitoring of the sunken submarine. It may not have been clear at the time what the initial findings led to in terms of formal analysis of the contaminated water. It is likely that the ongoing analysis explored the range of potential contamination and potential impact to both wildlife or ships and coastal areas. The currents and water flow, coupled with analysis of the concentrations of radioactive material, were likely analyzed in great detail with a mind to limiting damage and contamination.
Finally, there was likely some plan to destroy, dispose of or remove the contaminated material to prevent any further leakage concerning radioactive materials. Perhaps the nuclear-armed torpedoes were somehow safely removed.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.