Soviet Submarine K-278 Komsomolets is Leaking Radiation Just Outside Norway

Image by Carlos from Pixabay

Back in 1989, the Soviet nuclear submarine K-278 Komsomolets suffered a short-circuit problem in its engine room which resulted in an unmanageable fire problem that quickly spread over adjacent bays, causing the emergency shut down of the reactor. The crew decided to surface and abandon the ship that was still burning ferociously thanks to a continuous feed of oxygen from the compressed air system, so K-278 soon took its inevitable course to the bottom of the Norwegian sea, just 180 kilometers southwest of the Bear Island and about 200 miles to the north of the country’s mainland.

The problem now lies a mile deep in the cold sea, where the old OK-650 nuclear fission reactor that used enriched uranium-235 is still radioactive. While the double-walled titanium hull of K-278 sustained the pressure of the water which actually exceeded its nominal depth rating, 35 years have taken its toll on its structure, so the leaking problem has started to get noticeable. As a recent expedition carried out by a team of Norwegian and Russian researchers affirms, the level of radiation that they have detected during a routine monitoring session is 800 becquerels per liter, which is about 800000 times the normal levels.

However, the researchers are reassuring as they believe that at this depth and by taking into account the dilution, this leaking is not a severe problem for the underwater environment close to the Scandinavian country. While things seem to be safe for now, more ruptures are bound to happen on the submarine’s hull, so the radiation leak will definitely become a serious problem in the future. Moreover, K-278 was also carrying SS-N-15 Starfish anti-submarine missiles that incorporate a thermonuclear warhead which contains plutonium. These will also stay radioactive for many more years, well-beyond their planned decommissioning dates. No one can predict when the insignificant leakage problem will suddenly turn into an uncontrollably large-scale contamination, so teams of scientists and engineers are already feverishly working on possible solutions, even considering the lifting of the whole submarine out of the ocean bed.

Bianca Van der Watt

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