Scientists check 30-year-old submarine wreck for radiation in Norwegian Sea

Undated picture taken in St. Petersburg, Russia showing the nuclear-powered submarine Komsomolets, which sank in the Norvegian Sea, 7 April, 1989. (STF/AFP/Getty Images)
Norwegian and Russian researchers sail joint expedition to the site where the submarine Komsomolets sank in 1989.

The unique titanium hull Soviet submarine Komsomolets sank after a fire on April 7th 1989 some 180 kilometres south of Bear Island in the Norwegian Sea.

41 crewmembers died in the cold water as the submarine sank to a depth of 1,680 meters. This week, Norwegian research ship G. O. Sars, sailing for the Marine Research Institute, is at the site with a deep diving remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV).

“Now we come closer to the wreck than ever before, and get even better sampling,” says expedition leader Hilde Elise Heldal with the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research.

Nuclear reactors and warheads

Komsomolets has one nuclear reactor and two torpedoes tipped with plutonium warheads. Each of the warheads contains about 3 kilograms of plutonium-239, in diameter about the size of a tennis ball.

With a half-life of 24,000 years, the plutonium poses a treat, although experts say the chances of reaching the food chain is highly limited as there is very little marine life at the depth of the submarine wreck.

In the early 1990s and in 2007, Russian scientists measured small radioactive leakages at Komsomolets, including the isotope Cesium-137 from a pipe near the reactor compartment.

Later, Norwegian expeditions to the site have not measured any radioactivity, but unlike the Russian expeditions in the early 1990s which went down with a MIR mini-sub, the Norwegians have not been down deep with a submarine.

The ROV used this summer is named Ægir 6000 and is a vehicle equipped with both camera and steering arms to take samples.

“This expedition will give us updated and important knowledge about the pollution situation around the wreck,” says Hilde Elise Heldal.

“We have to monitor the levels of radioactivity in fish and seafood. The aim is to document that the environmental conditions in the Barents Sea are good and that seafood from the area is safe to eat.”

Related stories from around the North:

Norway: Was a nuclear-able Soviet sub near Norway’s coasts during a deadly 1984 fire?, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russian secret sub to be repaired and put back in service, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: U.S. Navy plans to be more active in the Arctic, Alaska Public Media

Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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