Norway says radiation levels around sunken Russian sub safe for now

k-159 tail The tail section of the K-159 submarine before it sank. Credit: Bellona

A new report published by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority has said that radiation levels near a Russian nuclear submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in 2003 with 800 kilograms of uranium in its reactors isn’t putting out dangerous levels of radiation, though the group recommended that monitoring be continued.

The report is based on measurements taken by a joint Norwegian-Russia crew that visited the site of the wreck three years ago, in 2014, and is part of ongoing efforts to monitor the condition of enormous amounts of radioactive waste dumped in northern seas by the Soviets over the course of several decades.

The K-159, which was decommissioned in 1989, sank in dramatic circumstances in August of 2003. At the time of its sinking, it was being towed from the Gremikha submarine maintenance base to dismantling at the Nerpa shipyard near Murmansk.

When the towing convoy ran into heavy weather, the dilapidated submarine, which was kept afloat by pontoons, snapped its towline and sank, drowning nine of the sailors who were aboard it to staunch leaks during the journey. The submarine now lays at a depth of 246 meters near Kildin Island in the fertile fishing grounds of Kola Bay.

The accident led to the firing of the Northern Fleet’s admiral, Gennady Suchkov, and brought about promises from President Vladimir Putin to raise the stricken vessel,  but these efforts have never materialized, despite offers of assistance from the British Ministry of Defense in 2007.

k-159 The K-159 prior to its fateful towing. Credit: Bellona

The new report from the NRPA says the submarine is lying at the bottom of the Barents Sea in an upright position. Inspections with a remote operated underwater vehicle reveals some damage to the submarine’s deck and that there is a break in its hull toward the stern.

Radiation measurements, which were taken by analyzing sea water and sediment samples from the area of the submarine indicate that there has been no radioactive leaks from the submarine’s reactors.

But these samples have never been independently analyzed in Norway. In 2015, after the joint expedition concluded, Russian radiation officials sent the samples to the NRPA, but they were impounded en route by Russian Customs in Murmansk, where they have remained ever since for reasons that are still unclear.

Nonetheless, NRPA officials who spoke at last week’s Arctic Forum in Tromsø, expressed confidence in the world of their Russian counterparts, and have concluded in their report that there is no urgent reason to raise the K-159.

NRPA sub k-159 map The location of the K-159 sunken nuclear submarine. Credit: Norwegian Radiation and Nucear Safety Authority

Official calls to raise this and other submarines, nevertheless, continue to periodically make headlines, though they recede just as quickly as those same officials acknowledge they don’t have the funding to do it.

The last serious discussion of raising sunken subs came in December of 2017, when Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute suggested Arctic oil drillers foot part of the bill for raising it. The suggestion failed to gain traction, and efforts to raise the subs was shelved for another three years.

Part of the difficulty of raising the subs stems from the overwhelming amount of nuclear trash that lays on the floor of Russian waters along the Arctic coast.

K-159 The condition of the K-27 submarine, which the Soviet Navy scuttled in the waters off Novaya Zemlya. Credit: IBRAE

Apart from the the K-159, which arrived in the depths by accident, there is the K-27 nuclear submarine that was sunk on purpose in the shallows off the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Further to the north, 1,600 meters under the Norwegian Sea, is the Komsomolets nuclear submarine, which sank with a reactor and two nuclear warheads in 1989.

And that’s just the submarines. Between 1963 and 1972, the Soviet Navy intentionally sank some 17,000 tons of solid radioactive waste, 14 reactors from other nuclear submarines, 19 ships containing nuclear waste, and 735 pieces of heavily irradiated equipment from a variety of nuclear powered vessels, including a reactor from the iconic nuclear icebreaker Lenin.

The full scale of the carcinogenic cache was revealed to Norwegian authorities in 2012, though the NRPA has been participating in joint expeditions with Russia to map the dangers since well before that.

The first of these joint expeditions began in the 1990s. The next came in 2001 and 2012. It’s unclear when the next expedition will take place.