Scientists have identified a radiation leak on the wreck of a Russian nuclear submarine that sank in Arctic waters in 1989.
The Soviet-era Komsomolets submarine sank off Norway’s Bear Island following a fire on board, which resulted in the loss of life of 42 of the 69 crewmen on board. Resting at a depth of 5,577 feet, the submarine’s nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads are still on board.
Scientists recently recorded radiation at the wreck site 100,000 times the normal level for the Norwegian Sea.
“Several samples taken in and around a ventilation duct on the wreck of the submarine contained far higher levels of radioactive caesium than you would normally find in the Norwegian Sea,” explained Norway’s Institute of Marine Research in a statement.
The institute said that findings were around 100 Becquerel (Bq) per liter as opposed to around 0.001 Bq per liter elsewhere in the Norwegian Sea.
The highest level measured in a sample at the wreck site was 800,000 times higher than normal, according to the researchers.
However, scientists noted that other samples from the same duct did not contain elevated levels of radiation.
“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,” said Expedition Leader Hilde Elise Heldal, in a statement. “So we weren’t surprised to find high levels here.”
Heldal said that the radiation levels are not dangerously high, citing the permitted limit for radioactive caesium in food. “After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Norwegian authorities set this limit to 600 Bq/kg”, she explained. “The levels we detected were clearly above what is normal in the oceans, but they weren’t alarmingly high.”
“What we have found during our survey has very little impact on Norwegian fish and seafood. In general, caesium levels in the Norwegian Sea are very low, and as the wreck is so deep, the pollution from Komsomolets is quickly diluted,” Heldal said.
“Over the past few days we have also taken samples a few meters above the duct. We didn’t find any measurable levels of radioactive caesium there, unlike in the duct itself” added Justin Gwynn, a researcher at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (DSA), in the statement.
The joint Norwegian-Russian expedition set off Saturday from Tromsoe, northern Norway, to study the wreck site. The Norwegian research vessel G.O. Sars arrived at the sub’s location Sunday and sent down AEgir 6000, an undersea drone, to analyze the vessel and capture eerie footage of the wreck.
Video shows the ghostly mangled wreckage of the submarine’s hull, its conning tower, a propeller and a torpedo.
Russia has suffered a number of high-profile submarine disasters.
Last week, 14 Russian seamen died in a fire on a Russian Navy research submersible in the Barents Sea. Officials withheld details of the tragedy, citing the utmost secrecy of the vessel’s mission. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the sailors were killed by toxic fumes from the fire. Some others survived the fire but the military hasn’t said how many.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the sub was on a research mission to measure sea depths in the Barents Sea.
Officials didn’t name the nuclear-powered vessel, but Russian media reported that it was Russia’s most secret submersible, the Losharik.
In 2000, the Kursk submarine sank during naval maneuvers in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 seamen onboard in Russia’s worst submarine disaster.