Russian Naval Negligence Sinks Retired Nuke Sub in Barents Sea, Killing Nine

Publish date: August 30, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

The K-159, a Russian November class attack submarine with a crew of 10, sank this morning in 185 metres of water in the Barents Sea five kilometres northwest of the Arctic Island of Kildin while being towed from the Gremikha naval base to the Polyarny shipyard, where it was headed for dismantlement. Nine crew members are believed to be dead.

The Russian Ministry of Defence in an interview from Moscow said that two crew members—who had apparently floated to the surface—have so far been counted as dead. One has been rescued, and the remaining crew members have likely already died. An air and sea search, for debris and possible survivors, is underway, the ministry said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the “the incident with the K-159 in the Barents Sea will be scrupulously investigated.”

The Russian Navy’s commander in chief, Vladimir Kuroyedov—who presided over the Kursk disaster—has thus far issued no official comment. He was said by Russia’s ORT television to be at Northern Fleet Headquarters in Severomorsk, accompanied by the military prosecutor general. They will be joined there later this evening by Minister of Defence Sergei Ivanov, ORT reported.

The deputy head of the Central Headquarters of Russia’ Naval Command, Viktor Kravchuk, said at an emergency meeting with the Defence Ministry in Moscow that the navy will “definitely raise the K-159 for further dismantlement.”

Russia’s deputy prosecutor general, Alexander Savenkov, has brought suit against the Northern Fleet and the chief of the Gremikha base, Captain Second Class Sergei Zhemchuzhny. The charges against Zhemchuzhny, said Savenkov, are being brought in accordance with Article No. 352 “On the Rules of Ship Towing,” of the Russian Criminal Code.

Initially, the K-159 was scheduled for dismantlement last year, but Northern Fleet officials postponed the dismantlement, for reasons unknown, until July 2003. That, too, was put off until this Friday night, even though Northern Fleet brass had reportedly received weather forecasts that were less than favourable for the K-159’s transfer to Polyarny. The Northern Fleet decided to send the vessel on anyway.

So far, Kuroyedov has managed to evade any official accusations.

The K-159, which was being towed by a tugboat, was floating on four air-filled pontoons for the 350-kilometre journey. The pontoons, however, came loose from the K-159 as the tugboat-submarine convoy was hit by stormy weather in the early hours of Saturday morning. The submarine then sank so quickly that the crew of the tugboat was able to rescue only one member of the sub’s crew, senior lieutenant and commander of the steering control team, Maxim Tsibulsky, when it sank somewhere between three to four in the morning.

According to the Russian RIA Novosti news service, a command to abandon the sinking vessel was issued at 2:20 am. By 3:00 am the K-159 had already gone under. A representative from the Northern Fleet Headquarters was quoted by the agency as saying that the helicopters that had flown out to sea in search of the submarine must have confused with another retired nuclear submarine—which likewise was being towed for dismantlement to Polyarny, where it arrived safely. The confusion led to contradictory reports on the time of the accident in the media.

Age of Sub Could Mean Radiation Risks
The two pressurised water reactors on the submarine, which had been laid up at Gremikha since 1989, had, according to the Defence Ministry, been shut down before the sub sank. The Defence Ministry also claimed that the reactors—which were still filled with nuclear fuel that had been loaded 31 years ago—are safe from spreading nuclear contamination because of their hermetically sealed compartments. Sergei Dygalo, assistant to Kuroyedov, also said there was “no danger of an ecological catastrophe” resulting from the sinking of the K-159.

However, the age of the submarine, and the erosion that occurred during the years it sat in the water awaiting dismantlement, mean that the reactor compartments are not as safe as the Defence Ministry asserts, and that radiation leaks are possible. There is a further possibility that Gulf Stream currents, which run east through the Barents Sea, will carry that radioactivity further afield.

The submarine has two VMA-type reactors, each with a thermal capacity of 70 megawatts. The reactor cores of these reactors contain approximately 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel with the radioactivity of 750 curies per kilogram.

The Victims
Tsibulsky is now in the Severomorsk Military Hospital, where doctors say his condition is stable.
The remaining crew members, who are presumed dead, are: Captain Second Class Sergei Lappa; the commander of the military electrical-mechanical section, Captain Third Class Mikhail Gurov; Senior Lieutenant in charge of the engine room Yury Zhadan; Captain Third Class Oleg Andreyev, who commanded the damage control station; electro-technical commander, Senior Lieutenant Sergei Sokolov; Senior Boatswain Alexander Alyoshkin; Warrant Officer Roman Kurinny, who was in charge of the chemistry service and radiation dosage measurement section; the commander of the turbine operating crew, commissioned Petty Officer First Class Yevgeny Smirnov; and the steering control team’s mechanic, Chief Petty Officer Andrei Knyazev. Gurov and Smirnov’s bodies were recovered shortly after the accident.

Despite the unlikelihood of finding anyone alive onboard the K-159, search vessels lowered listening devices to the foundered vessel—but so far, they have heard only silence in return, Kravchenko said.

Bellona’s legal staff in Murmansk and St. Petersburg will be assisting the families of the victims of the K-159’s sinking in possible lawsuits against the Russian Navy.

The bitter irony of this sinking is that it fell approximately on the three-year anniversary of the sinking of the Kursk, an Oscar-II class submarine that sank after a torpedo fuel explosion during a training exercise on August 12th 2000. It is also ironic because the Russian Navy—which has been supplied with advice and offers of technical help from European and other nations on decommissioned submarine handling—chose the cheapest method to transport the ailing retired submarine.

Bellona Warnings Would Have Prevented Accident
Other, safer—but more expensive—methods include sending a special defuelling ship to the submarine. In Northwest Russia, there is one such ship, called the Imandra, which is operated by the Murmansk Shipping Company. Imandra services Russia’s civilian nuclear icebreakers, but has been used in naval defuelling operations before.

Other methods suggested by Bellona include shipping submarines with the help of a floating dry dock, also a more expensive, but much safer, method. Likewise, land-based defuelling facilities are safer, but in short supply.

Bellona clearly warned the Russian Navy in 2001 that towing submarines from Gremikha carried with it precisely the sort of risks that caused today’s catastrophe, and recommended to the Russian government that the submarines at Gremikha be dismantled onsite.

Within the past few years, there were 17 submarines laid-up at Gremikha and awaiting dismantlement. Now there are from six to seven submarines—with the exclusion of the K-159—waiting to be towed to Polyarny.

Russian Navy Dismantling on the Cheap
Bellona suggests that the Russian Navy, in this case, ignored safer option. By entrusting the dismantlement of the K-159 to the Polyarny shipyard, which is one of the few shipyards left under the control of the Russian Defence Ministry, the Navy was aiming at redirecting funds to its own shipyards.

Northwest Russia’s remaining shipyards—Nerpa, Sevmash and Zvyozdochka—fall under the purview of the Russian Shipbuilding Agency. Had the defuelling been handled by the Imandra, and subsequent dismantlement by a Northwestern Russian shipyard not connected with the Defence Ministry, the money would have bypassed the Navy.

“The accident was exactly what we predicted and described in detail and Bellona is demanding an immediate stop to these towing methods,” said Bellona President Fredric Hauge on Saturday.

What is troubling, however, is that towing is still the Russian navy’s preferred method of taking submarines to dismantling points, and such towing operations, which are sanctioned by the navy’s highest brass, happen frequently, said Igor Kurdin of the St. Petersburg Submariners’ Club. Kurdin told Bellona Web that there were a number of questions surrounding K-159 incident. First, he said, it is unclear why there were any crewmen aboard the K-159 in the first place—a practice that is not the norm for such towing operations.

Secondly, it is also not clear how well equipped the K-159 was for the journey. Kurdin added that—despite the predicted favourable weather conditions for the towing of submarines for this year—the rest of this year’s towing efforts will be scratched from the schedule.

What is clear is that during the decommissioning process of the K-159’s reactor compartment, the primary reactor circuit was isolated with the use of a special chemical solution, that the nuclear control rods where locked in the lower position to avoid accidental restarting of the reactor, and that power cables were severed from the control rods. All of this is standard procedure for decommissioning a submarine, said chairman of Bellona’s Russian branch, Alexander Nikitin.

But what remains in question is whether these procedures would hold up in the kind of catastrophe that occurred today. Bellona is concerned with how firmly and reliably the control rods had been locked in place. The consequences of the control rods slipping when the K-159 hit the sea floor or in case it capsized are largely unknown. Such a repositioning of the control rods could lead to the reactor restarting and to a possible chain reaction—thus a nuclear explosion. Additionally, there is a chance that the reactor’s main circuit may become unsealed, causing a radioactive leak, Nikitin added.

Minatom Response
Though the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, is responsible for the submarines only after spent nuclear fuel has been unloaded from their reactors to be shipped for reprocessing, its chief of the ecological safety department, Mikhail Agapov, nonetheless, summed up for Bellona Web the amount Russia spends on submarine dismantlement versus the foreign aid that Western countries donate to Moscow for that purpose.

“The Russian government annually allocates 1.5 million rubles for submarine dismantlement, whereas international programmes give one billion rubles. In all, international aid makes up to 5 to 10 percent of funds involved in nuclear and radiation safety for the whole Russian nuclear industrial complex,” Agapov said in an interview with Bellona Web.

Minatom has funded defuelling of some 45 to 50 submarines since the ministry took over that task in 2001, Agapov said.

November Class Submarines
From 1955 to 1966, a total of 57 first generation nuclear submarines were built, of which 13 were Project 627A—November class; 8 were Project 658—Hotel class; 5 were Project 659—Echo-I class; and 29 Project 675—Echo-II class—vessels. Two prototype submarines were also built which can be referred to as first generation submarines: one Project 645—November class—vessel with a liquid metal-cooled reactor and one Project 661—Papa class—submarine.

The Northern Fleet’s Dumping Practices in the Artcic
The Russian Northern Fleet has since 1960 dumped radioactive waste in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea on a regular basis. This includes solid radioactive waste, liquid radioactive waste, and nuclear reactors with and without fuel. Furthermore, radioactive waste has been dumped in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea from the civil state-run Murmansk Shipping Company’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers.

Gremikha (Iokanga) Naval Base
Gremikha (Iokanga) naval base is the second onshore storage site at the Kola Peninsula for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from submarines. The base is the easternmost Northern Fleet base at the Kola Penninsula, located some 350 kilometers east of the mouth of the Murmansk Fjord.

Around 800 elements from pressurised water reactors are stored in Gremikha, containing 1.4 tonnes of nuclear fuel materials. A further six reactor cores from liquid metal reactors are also stored here onshore. Spent nuclear fuel remains in the reactors of all the 6 or 7 submarines laid-up at piers at the base (as of July 2003). The base also holds around 300 cubic metres of solid radioactive waste and around 2,000 cubic metres of liquid radioactive waste.

Polyarny Shipyard
This navy shipyard No. 10 is located near the town of Polyarny, on the westernmost side of the Murmansk Fjord. As the first nuclear-powered submarines were delivered to the Northern Fleet at the end of the 1950s, the shipyard was modified for docking and repairs of these vessels.

World Funding Pours Into Russia for Nuclear Cleanup and Sub Dismantling
It may have taken more than a year to kick-start the $20-billion pledges made at the Kananaskis, Canada, Group of Eight industrialised nations conference of June 2002, but, at last, some of the international funding spigots to help Russia deal with radioactive waste from its vast arsenal of decommissioned submarines, as well as with other radioactive hazards, are opening. But how much is there exactly to be done?