Two years after the K-159 tragedy: the submarine remains at the bottom

Publish date: September 1, 2005

Despite promises of Russian Navy brass to lift the K-159 submarine, which sank on August 30th 2003 killing nine of its 10 crew members while being towed for dismantlement, the derelict vessel still remains at the bottom of the Barents sea with 800 kilograms of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel in its reactors.

Though the aged multi-purpose submarine―which was retired in 1989 and sank once while moored at the Gremikha naval base―has shown as yet no signs of contaminating the fishing-based economy of Kildin Island where it went down, the 240 meter depth were is lies means the two reactor cores will start leaking from water pressure eventually, if it has not already.

“As far as we can see, the Russian authorities are not interested in the problem of K-159 disaster. That’s why Bellona is planning to initiate hearings in international organizations in order to make some progress in decision-making concerning lifting or securing the submarine," said Alexander Nikitin, chair of Bellona’s office in St. Petersburg and a former Russian submarine officer.

“The K-159 sank at the depth of 240 meters, and it can be called the most dangerous object at the bottom of the Arctic seas."

In Bellona’s opinion, the decision to lift the K-159―or its conservation at the sea bottom―can be made only after a proper investigation of the area where the submarine sank is conducted.


The K-159 submarine retired from the Northern Fleet in 1989 sank in the early morning hours on August 30th in the Barents Sea while being towed to a dismantlement point with 10 crew members aboard. Only one of them was rescued and only two bodies of its crew members were recovered.

The terms of lifting K-159 have been already broken twice: At first it was in the autumn of 2004, but later, the Russian Navy announced that the operation would take place in July and August 2005.

These statements were made by Vladimir Kuroedov, commander of the Russian Navy, and his assistant Igor Dygalo. In December 2004 Kuroedov said: "We do not abandon the plan to lift the submarine. We are working now together with the Malakhit design bureau and the Dutch company “Mammoet’".

It was Malakhit that designed the Russian November class submarines (project 627) of which the K-159 is one. The K-159 is a first generation submarine and was put into operation in 1963.

"Today there was a mourning service at Nikolsky Cathedral in St.Petersburg, after which the representatives of Malakhit presented the plan of lifting to the relatives of the crew members," said Igor Kurdin, former Navy officer and the chairman of the St. Petersburg submariners’s club, to Bellona Web on Tuesday.

Earlier Interfax reported that Raisa Lappa, mother of Sergey Lappa, the head of the group that accompanied the K-159, is outraged with the fact that the question of lifting has not been decided yet.

“None of us has got any distinct answer whether they will lift the bodies or not, and if they will, when it will happen and what they are doing for now,” said Lappa.

“As the Kursk the Russian submarine that sank in August 2000 with 118 onboard and was raised in 2002 perished, all the country was informed about the lifting operations. Now they do not say anything. It seems that everybody has forgotten about us and about the crew,” said Lappa, who came to St.-Petersburg from the Altai to participate in the mourning ceremonies.

The Malakhit project
“The lifting project designed by Malakhit presumes that the lifting operation would be carried out by the Dutch Mammoet company, which lifted the Kursk. But Mammoet insists on the complete monitoring of the area of the accident before any agreements are made,” said Kurdin.

Complete monitoring of the area would cost 70m rubles, or $2.4m, but the money has not yet been allocated.

"The main thrust of Malakhit’s project is special automatic claws, designed by the bureau. The Krylov Institute carried out the tests. In principle, Mammoet has all the other equipment,” Kurdin said.

The head of the Mammoet press-service, Larissa van Seumeren told Bellona Web earlier this year that "We have been in negotiations on lifting the K-159 for quite some time already and the discussions are still going on.”

The preliminary inspection of the K-159, needed for the lifting, had been planned for May to June 2004, but hasn’t been carried out yet. The approximate cost of submarine’s lifting is more than 50m Euro.

"We are grieving about what happened two years ago. That is all we can say today", Vitaly Ostapenko, the chief engineer of the Malakhit design bureau said.

Andrei Romancheko, representative of the Krylov Institute, where all the tests for the lifting were planned to be held was scornful.

“Hell knows, when the lifting operation will be. There was some buzz, but it has all stagnated now,” he said.

The main cause of stagnation named by Russian specialists is the lack of funding for the project.

“The Ministry of Finance considers that the lifting operation should be funded from the yearly budget of the Russian Navy and doesn’t suppose any additional funding. That causes the problems in financing,” said Kurdin.

“There is a project of a governmental decree about K-159 lifting, but it’s only a project so far.”

According to information from Malakhit reported by the Russian Interfax news agency, though the general project of the lifting operation is ready and has been approved by the Russian Navy’s Headquarters, “two ministers – Herman Gref Ministry of Economic development and Alexei Kudrin Ministry of Finance refused funding the operation, and it makes the very possibility of the lifting more and more unreal”.

Interfax also reported that, according to Malakhit, the project is being considered by Rosatom, Russia’s official nuclear agency.

But Rosatom spokesman Nikolai Shingarev refuted this information.

“It’s possible Rosatom specialists are checking the nuclear safety of the project, but no separate project of the lifting operation is considered by Rosatom,” he told Bellona Web.

Kudrin said that there were some propositions to use Rosatom funds, but that these funds are provided by donor countries directly for decommissioning, and not for salvage operations.

The Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), supervising the situation in the Barents Sea, does not have any information about possible salvage operation for the K-159.

“We are not being informed about any plans of lifting the submarine. We have repeatedly asked Russian authorities about it―the last time was in June―and they replied there were no plans of lifting the submarine yet,” Ingar Amundsen, senior adviser for NRPA, told Bellona Web.

The Environmental situation in the K-159 disaster area
"We did not initiate any special programme of environmental monitoring near the submarine, located on Russian territory, but we have a continuous surveying programme, monitoring the marine environment in the Northwest of Russia and taking samples near the Russian border. Our investigations show there is no elevated level of radioactivity in the region,” said Amundsen.

The K-159 nuclear powered submarine has two VMA-type reactors, each with a thermal capacity of 70 megawatts. The cores of these reactors contain a combined total of approximately 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel with a radioactivity of 750 curies per kilogram.

“Based on experience garnered from previous sunken nuclear submarines, like the Komsomolets in 1987, the contamination will first happen―and is possibly already happening―locally,” Bellona’s Nikitin said.

In a longer-term scenario, the contamination could migrate further into the Barents Sea. This migration would particularly concern “hot particles” that are created as a result of any electrochemical process that may take place in the reactor. Such “hot particles” are small metal particles and are heavily contaminated with alpha-emitters. Plutonium is one example.

In 1989, the K-159 was retired by the Russian Northern Fleet. During the dismantlement process the following technical operations aimed at maintaining the necessary level of nuclear and radiation safety were performed with the reactor compartment of the submarine. But these procedures provide for nuclear and radiation safety while in the normal operations mode. However, no procedures have ever been developed or performed to this end for the situations of emergencies—like the kind that took place with the K-159.

The fact that the K-159’s reactors had been shut down since 1989 means that there is very little heat production left in the reactor cores. The lack of heating means that there is no longer an elevated pressure inside the reactor tank that would help keep corrosive seawater out. Compounding radiation hazards is the water pressure at the depth of 240 metres, at which the K-159 lies, that will further increase the risk for seawater crushing into the reactor compartments and getting into the reactor.

“This is why we absolutely can not understand the inactivity of the Russian authorities concerning K-159,” says Nikitin.

In Bellona’s opinion, the psychological factor of having a nuclear submarine resting at the bottom of the fish-rich Barents Sea must also be taken into account. For the fish exporting industry in Norway and Russia, rumours about radioactively contaminated fish could have a dramatic market impact on the sale of fish from the Barents Sea. The Bellona Foundation has initiated a project to measure radioactivity levels in fish caught in the Barents Sea.

“It is the position of Bellona that the Russian Federation should very thoroughly investigate different technical solutions for lifting the K-159 from the sea bottom in order to safely decommission the submarine”, says Nikitin.

NRPA’s Admundsen added that: "We think lifting of the submarine is very important and it would be very good to prevent any possible source of radioactivity, but it is necessary to evaluate the environmental risks of the lifting operation.”

The existing Malakhit project doesn’t have the legally needed conclusions for its environmental impact and technical safety, but these documents cannot be prepared without complete monitoring of the area where the K-159 went down.

The Malakhit representatives cited by Interfax said that, in case funding starts, “it would be possible to speak about the beginning of the salvage operation not earlier than in 2007, as the last month, when marine monitoring was possible, taking into consideration the harsh Northern climate, is missed.”

Nikitin added that: “The lifting plans are not discussed seriously and are not funded. We can say, that in the nearest two or three years there will be no lifting, first of all, because the lack of political will―it seems that the nowadays Kremlin.