A Russian nuclear submarine that sank near the Arctic more than three decades ago is believed to be actively leaking radiation.
In 2019, a team of Russian and Norwegian researchers gathered seawater samples close to the area where the K-278 Komsomolets sank.
One of the samples was 100,000 times more radioactive than uncontaminated water.
When the submarine sank in 1989 following a fire on board, 42 sailors were killed. Concerningly, the Komsomolets was carrying two torpedoes with nuclear warheads when it sank to the bottom of the ocean.
As explained by The Drive, “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.”
In 2021, Russian scientists again investigated the scene of the sinking. They worried that plutonium from the two nuclear-tipped torpedoes could be leaking cesium-137, strontium-90, and other radioactive isotopes.
Introducing the Komsomolets
Known as the Project-685 submarine, the Komsomolets was one of the Soviet Navy’s most formidable ships.
The submarine could reach depths as low as 3,350 feet.
Project 685 was conceptualized by the Rubin Design Bureau in order to construct an advanced submarine that was capable of carrying a combination of cruise missiles and torpedoes with both conventional and nuclear warheads.
The K-278 was first commissioned in 1983, and given the nickname “Mike” by NATO. The Soviet submarine was fitted with a titanium inner hull and a single pressurized-water nuclear reactor.
Russian Submarine Down: How It Happened
During the Komsomolets’ third operational patrol in the Arctic, a fire led to her sinking. As detailed by Radio Free Europe, “At a depth of about 335 meters, a fire in the engine room quickly spread and caused the sub’s nuclear reactor to shut down.
The crew managed to carry out an emergency ascent and breached the surface within 11 minutes. But while most of the crew of 69 was able to evacuate, four died in the fire, while many who had managed to escape died of hypothermia as they awaited rescue.”
The submarine was able to give out a distress signal roughly one hour after the fire erupted, but rescue ships and airplanes were late to arrive at the scene. Forty-two sailors perished when the Komsomolets sank roughly 100 nautical miles southwest of Bear Island in the Barents Sea.
Over the last two decades, Russia’s navy has suffered a number of fatal incidents. In 2000, an explosion on the Kursk submarine killed all 118 sailors on board when the vessel sank to the ocean floor, marking the deadliest naval mishap in post-Soviet Russia.
In 2008, 20 Russian sailors and shipyard workers died when the fire-extinguishing system onboard the K-152 accidently activated. More recently, in 2019 a fire killed 14 sailors onboard a Russian deep-sea submersible.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.