Five years of promises to raise the K-159 remain broken

Publish date: September 1, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – From the moment of the tragic sinking of the decommissioned K-159 submarine in August 2003 while it was being towed through heavy weather to dismantlement, killing nine, the Russian military has been promising to raise it.

Five years later, however, the vessel still lies at a depth of 238 meters packed with 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel and experts and environmentalists are warning that a catastrophe may be imminent if the submarine is not raised soon.

“We regularly raise this question in dialogue with the Russian side,” said Per Strand, one of the directors of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA).

“A plan for lifting the vessel exists, any conclusive decisions about any kind of deadlines are unknown to us. We plan to discuss the problem again in talks this autumn,” he said.

On the Russian side, representatives of the Natural Resources Ministry, the Defence Ministry, and the Russian Service for Ecological, Technical, and Nuclear Oversight will participate in the talks.  

The K-159 was taken out of service in 1989, and is considered one of the most radioactively dangerous objects on the bottom of the Arctic seas.

The vessel sank on August 30th 2003 in the Barents Sea when the towline connecting it to a tugboat snapped in high seas. Ten crewmembers were aboard the K-159 helping to plug leaks and keep it afloat during its journey to the Polyarny Shipyard north of Murmansk from Gremikha for dismantling. Only one crewmember was saved from the icy waters.

Promises to make promise broken
Over the past two years, deadlines to reach some sort of solution have blithely been broken time and again by high-ranking naval officials

The last time plans to raise the vessel were discussed, they were brought up by the Russian Navy’s Commander, Vladimir Vysotsky in June. Vysotsky said that a decision about the vessel would be taken by the end of the year, according to RIA Novosti.

Earlier, in July 2003, Vysotsky announced that a decision about raising the K-159 would be forthcoming in a month and a half to two months. In December 2007, the chief of environmental safety for the Russian military, Alevtin Yunak, promised at a meeting between the government and the Military Industrial Commission that the decision would be made by the beginning of 2008.

From four to 50 years

At the moment there are two principle variants for solving the problem. The first is raising and towing the vessel to dismantlement, and the second is fortifying the sarcophagus of the vessel. Which scenario is chosen depends on the condition of the K-159 itself.

A monitoring evaluation of the vessel’s hull and the underwater environment was conducted last June by the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) programme. The study showed that there are no technical hurdles to raising the K-159.

“According to our information, everything stalled with the results of the study,” said Igor Kogan of the Malakhit engineering bureau, which has put together schematics for raising the sub, in an interview with Bellona Web.

Kogan said there is no reason to hurry with raising the vessel at present, as the reactor unit is hermetically sealed, and radiation surrounding the wreckage does not exceed what could be considered naturally occurring.

The NRPA’s Strand agreed.

“We constantly conduct monitoring of ecological conditions near the Russia border – on the Kola Peninsula and in the Finnmark province (of northeastern Norway) and we can confirm that at a short distance from the submarine there are no traces of radioactive contamination,” Strand said.  

Nevertheless, environmentalists warn that danger to the environment remains, and that foot-dragging over the raising of the vessel could have irreversible consequences.

“Relying on the experience collected by specialists of past accidents with sunken nuclear ships, like, for instance, the sinking of the Komsomolets in 1987, it is possible to confirm that, to begin with, radioactive contamination begins on a local level,” said Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices.

According to reports delivered at the “International Cooperation for Liquidating the Legacy of the USSR’s Atomic Fleet” conference in Moscow in April, the reactor compartment will give way to corrosion and will no longer be hermetically sealed four to 50 years from now.

This means that a decision about raising the K-159 must be taken within the next two years – especially when taking into consideration Kogan’s assertion that, should it be decided to raise the vessel, another two years minimum will be required to construct a special vessel for that purpose.

Last week, Russia’s Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was scheduled to deliver a report on raising the k-159, but none of his conclusions have been released.