Thirty years ago the Russian nuclear submarine Komsomolets sank southwest of Bjørnøya after a fire broke out in the wheelhouse, killing 42 people aboard. On Sunday a team of Norwegian and Russian researchers departed Tromsø to visit the site and determine if radiation is leaking from the nuclear reactor and warheads within the vessel 1,700 meters beneath the surface.
“It’s important to know so we can understand the risk of contamination,” said Hilde Elise Heldal, a researcher and head of the project. “The atomic vessel has a nuclear reactor and two torpedoes with nuclear warheads on board.”
Her remarks, presented in a summary of the project by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, note that both countries have conducted probes at the site in the years since the accident, but the remote-operated submarine being used for the current voyage means “we are getting closer to the wreck than ever before and getting an even better sampling.”
Previous Russian studies in the early 1990s and 2007 have shown there have been small radioactive discharges from the reactor and the submarine has major damage, especially in the front part, according to the institute. While the plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 yers, researchers said it’s unlikely the contamination will infiltrate the food chain because there is very little marine life at the sub’s depth.
Heldal said the monitoring of the sub will continue in the years to come.
“We must monitor the levels of radioactive contamination in fish and seafood,” she said. “It is about documenting that the environmental condition in the Barents Sea is good and that the seafood from there is safe to eat.”
It’s not the only Russian vessel stranded at Bjørnøya. The ship Petrozavodsk ran aground in May of 2009, resulting in a large diesel fuel leak. The captain and first mate were convicted of charges related to drinking alcohol and other negligence. While the fuel disappated quickly without major environmental damage, the ship itself remains a contamination concern because officials have determined it is too hazardous to attempt removing it from the rocky coast.