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Russia: Environmentalists Warns Of Submarine's Nuclear Risk

  • Sophie Lambroschini



For the moment, no radioactive leaks outside the sunken wreck of the Russian nuclear submarine "Kursk" submarine hull have been detected. But Thomas Nilsen of Norway's environmental Bellona Foundation -- an expert on radioactive contamination by old nuclear-powered submarines -- warns that the long-term risks of leakage are very real. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini spoke with Nilsen today about the dangers posed by the "Kursk."

Moscow, 23 Aug 2000 (RFE/ RL) -- "There's no way of being 100 percent sure the 'Kursk' will not leak," Nilsen said in a telephone interview from Oslo. Nilsen says a meltdown of the "Kursk's" two nuclear reactors was prevented because they had been turned off. For now, he adds, Norwegian scientists confirm Russian officials' claim that the potential radioactivity leakage has been contained. That, he says, still leaves the Arctic seas -- where the accident occurred -- some of cleanest in the world, with one-tenth of the radioactivity now found in the North or Irish Sea.

Nilsen is co-author of a 1996 Bellona report on nuclear waste leaks from Russian Northern Fleet submarines. The report unleashed the fury of Russian security organs against its other co-author, Aleksandr Nikitin, a former Russian Navy nuclear engineer, who was charged with high treason -- and eventually acquitted. Now an ardent environmental advocate, Nikitin said yesterday that the "Kursk" might begin leaking radiation within six weeks.

One of Bellona's chief concerns, according to Nilsen, is that the Russian Northern Fleet continue seeking international cooperation both in securing the "Kursk's" nuclear reactors and in monitoring possible radioactivity. Although the submarine sank in international waters, he says, a lot still depends on Russian's future conduct.

"If the Northern fleet decides to close off the area around the wreck in the Barents sea, then there is of course no way for other countries to force themselves in there and make measurements -- that will be impossible."

Nilsen notes, however, that Norway does have a system of monitoring radioactivity in fish trawled in the Barents Sea. Such a control system means that, even if Russia closes off the area to foreign inspection, the truth will eventually emerge.

Nilsen says that the force of the explosion that destroyed the front part of the "Kursk" may also have damaged part of its reactors' cooling systems, since the nuclear reactor compartment is located just behind the sub's control tower. For him, the "worse case scenario" would be a combination of saltwater in the reactor compartment and the heating of fuel elements speeding up the corrosion process of the reactor's body. In that event, he says, there could be direct contact between the first cooling circuit -- which is quite radioactive -- and sea water, provoking leakage outside the submarine. This would most likely only affect a small area around the bottom of the submarine and would not contaminate fish throughout the Barents Sea.

But, he says, in the long term -- tens of years from now -- the radioactivity inside the reactor core will leak out because of the hull's inevitable corrosion. Then the heavy radioactivity of the spent fuel in the reactors will pass into the sea water. So, Nilsen concludes, something has to be done now with the "Kursk."

"We cannot leave the submarine as it is without doing anything. This is the most important fishing ground, not only for Russia but also for Northern Europe."

Should the "Kursk" be raised to the sea's surface or should it be left on the sea bed? Nilsen urges the decision be "hurried" but not "rushed." He does not recommend, for example, hauling the submarine up before its condition has been thoroughly evaluated. If the submarine was very heavily damaged, Nilsen says, its reactors could emit radioactivity and contaminate even a bigger area on the sea's surface.

On the other hand, Nilsen says, if experts conclude that the "Kursk" should be secured on the sea bed, then radioactivity inside its reactors could be contained through chemical treatment. Another possibility would be to seal off the holes in the submarine to prevent sea currents from penetrating and flushing out radioactivity. That, Nilsen recalls, is what the Russians did with the wreck of the Komsomolets submarine that sunk to almost 1,700 meters in the Norwegian Sea in 1989. Building a sarcophagus is the worst option, Nilsen says, because the Chornobyl experience shows that the container started to leak after 10 years.

Nilsen says that what he calls a major "dilemma" with the "Kursk" is what to do with the sub if it is raised. He points out that there is no more storage space for the "Kursk's" spent nuclear fuel on the Kola peninsula. There is also no storage space for its reactor compartment.

Bellona and other environmental groups have for years warned of the dangers of storing some 100 Russian nuclear-powered submarines that have been taken out of active service since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. They are all now rusting away in ports on the Kola Peninsula. More than 70 of them still have spent nuclear fuel in their reactors. In four or five of the older submarines, direct leakage of their cooling circuits into sea water has already been detected.

Therefore, Nilsen concludes, Russia must open its naval bases and nuclear waste storage sites to international experts. Most of these experts, he says, now discount as unimportant the arguments of Russian authorities about protecting the country's military secrets.

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