1. The Issue
On 7 April, 1989, after thirty-nine days at sea, the Soviet
nuclear sub Komsomolets sank in the Barents Sea off the coast of
Norway. Forty-two officers in the Soviet navy perished, while most
of the officers who did survive escaped with serious injuries. The
Komsomolets was unique among submarines in the Soviet navy. It was
a 6400 ton forerunner of a new class of nuclear submarines. The
Komsomolets also had capabilities beyond those of American
submarines. It was able to dive deeper than its predecessors and
the advanced nuclear reactor propelled it to speeds faster than any
other submarine. It was made of titanium, a stronger metal than
conventional materials, but also more expensive. On 7 April,
however, none of the supposedly superior aspects of the submarine
prevented it from disaster. When fire broke out in the stern of
the ship, it quickly spread to other compartments. After
surfacing, the intense pressure from the fire was too much for the
titanium hull as high pressured oxygen ruptured the hull. The ship
sank to the bottom of the sea bed, 1700 meters below the surface.
In the ensuing months, specialists initially concluded that the
wreck posed little threat to the surrounding ecosystem. But as the
years passed evidence of potential environmental damage mounted,
pushing officials to announce structural deficiencies in the wreck,
and the possibility of plutonium leakage into the sea by 1995. The
potential damage to the local ecosystem is enormous and
irrevocable. It is one of the richest fishing areas in the world;
trade in fisheries, valued at billions of dollars annually, is in
The Komsomolets is not the only nuclear submarine to
experience such a major accident. Four other Soviet nuclear subs
and two American vessels are supposedly resting at the bottom of
the sea. While the other accidents have been mostly forgotten by
the press and public, the Komosomolets still demands public
scrutiny because of its location and potential environmental
damage. It is feared that leaks from the nuclear reactor and
torpedoes could imperil rich arctic fisheries, causing massive
losses in revenue for several nations.
It was only in the last couple of years that the potential
damage from the ship was recognized. As late as April of 1993,
Russian officials were still claiming (not without warrant) that
leaks were "insignificant" and posed no threat to the surrounding
environment. It was around this time, however, that environmental
repercussions from the accident were first being realized. In an
interview on Russian television, Tengiz Nikolayevich Borisov,
Chairman of the Specialized Underwater Work of the Russian
Federation Government and a primary scientist tasked with examining
the accident, discussed the problems with the wreck. After
several underwater submersible missions to the site, it became
apparent that sea water was eroding the casings of the warheads and
the hull of the submarine. This erosion was perpetuated by
rapidly shifting currents, which hastened the corrosive process.
Borisov frankly admitted there was a real danger of leakage,
originally not predicted (if at all) for many years. The reason,
ironically, lies in the construction of the submarine itself.
Steel components and alloys based on magnesium and aluminum corrode
at enormous speeds in the presence of titanium; thus plutonium is
predicted to enter the sea at some point in 1995.
Borisov predicted that in the summer of 1994, scientists might
be able to "buy some time," because a massive operation to either
raise the submarine or somehow remove the weapons would take years
to plan. Previous expeditions which examined the possible
extrication of the sub, concluded this would likely not be possible
because of structural decay and corrosion. If the ship breaks up
in the process, it might exacerbate any environmental damage.
Therefore a mission was planned to seal some of the cracks during
the summer of 1994 and forestall the predicted seepage in 1995.
This precluded some damage and gave scientists more time to plan
another scheme to eradicate the problem.
When the expedition reached the wreck during the summer of
1994, scientists were surprised to discover some plutonium leakage.
One of the sub's two torpedoes equipped with nuclear warheads
appeared to have broke, releasing twenty-two pounds of plutonium
into direct contact with the ocean. The expedition was successful
in closing some of the holes in the hull of the sub. However,
although radioactive levels were low last summer, expedition
scientists warn that the rest of the sub must be sealed soon, or
else plutonium may show up in the food chain.
Norwegian authorities, who have vested trade interests in the
region, and scientists concur with this point. It was previously
argued that the severe depth of the submarine would preclude
detrimental effects to organisms. But scientists have since
articulated a plausible scenario illustrating the damaging effects.
They are most concerned with the alternating cold and warm ocean
currents that can transport contaminated plankton from the depths
around the wreck toward the surface where the organisms can be
eaten by fish. They are also worried about sea water flowing
between the inner titanium and outer steel shells of the material.
Additionally, the torpedo casings are especially vulnerable and
dangerous. The plutonium released can likely attach to titanium
flakes and spread throughout the sea.
Scientists are currently considering three options to
eradicate the problem. The first and most expensive proposition is
to raise the sub. A Dutch firm estimates that this could cost
somewhere in the range of $1 billion dollars. But more
importantly, most analysts believe this option to be the most
hazardous. The submarine has corroded to a point where it is
unlikely to stay intact during such an operation. This would
worsen environmental problems if it were to break up on its ascent.
The second option is to raise only the bow of the craft (section
with the torpedoes). But this option has been set aside, since the
leakage has rendered the weapons unstable. Because of corrosion,
movement of the weapons could cause them to explode. The third and
most likely option is to encase the submarine by hermetically
sealing it with a jelly substance from crustacean shells containing
one to two percent chitosan. It is postulated that this chitinous
gel can bind radionuclides better than concrete, as originally
postulated A few years after this operation, the warheads could
be safely removed. Scientists stress that the warheads must be
removed; half-life for plutonium-239 is 24,000 years. The
interim sealing process will give scientists time to devise such a
plan. The sealing operation will commence in the summer of
The effects of the Komsomolets accident go beyond ecological
consequences. There are trade repercussions also. Several
European nations fish in the region very close to the exact
location where the wreck is submerged. Ecological consequences
threaten billions of dollars in revenue from sales of fish to
Russia and Europe. There has already been a decrease of fishing
in the area, due to minor contamination levels and the perceived
threat of future, more extensive, contamination. Once the encasing
operation is completed, fishing operations should return to the
area in a relatively short period of time. Russia has since been
heavily criticized, not so much for the accident itself (accidents
of this sort do happen), but because it could have been prevented
and more should have been done to rectify the situation.
Nevertheless, efforts to quash the potential ecological side-
effects are proceeding. It remains to be seen, however, whether or
not such efforts will be successful. The aforementioned operation
to seal the warheads is scheduled for this summer.
3. Related Cases:
(1): Trade Product = FISH
(2): Bio-geography = OCEAN
(3): Environmental Problem = Species Loss Sea [SPLS]
4. Draft Author: Vincent P. Bonner
II Legal Filters
5. Discourse and Status: Disagreement and
The loss of a nuclear sub is a unique event, and as such, is
not covered by an international agreement. Any means of solving a
subsequent problem (such as potential pollution by the
Komsomolets), must be worked out on an ad hoc basis. In this
example, Russia is primarily working with Norway, which has the
most to lose if said pollution effects the environment as
forecasted. Since there has been minor damage to the environment
thus far, most analyses are only informed speculation at best.
This will probably prove to be an important consideration in the
future as different parties may adhere to different extremes of the
exact nature of the problem.
6. Forum and Scope: Russia and Unilateral
At this point there is no deliberative body that can broker a
solution. Russia and Norway are directly involved and hence will
be the primary parties in discussing the future course of action.
Other European nations, such as Finland, Sweden, the United
Kingdom, and Iceland fish in the Barents and Norwegian Seas and
therefore have a stake in the situation. The United States has
a vital interest in the Komsomolets also, though not for
environmental or trade reasons. The US is interested because they
to have lost nuclear subs and are intrigued by methods to salvage
7. Decision Breadth: 2 (Russia and Norway)
In addition to Norway and Russia, some other nations utilize
resources from the Barents Sea area. They include, but are not
limited to, European nations.
8. Legal Standing: Law
Given the capricious state of Russian affairs, one might
easily envisage legislators demanding some sort of action depending
on what experts predict. They could easily be swayed by
nationalism or by the populace as a whole. The Russians are also
concerned that a salvage operation may result in a diffusion of
sensitive technology to other nations.
C. Geographic Filters
9. Geographic Locations:
a. Domain: EUROPE
b. Site: Northern Europe
c. Impact: Russia
10. Sub-National Factors: No
11. Type of Habitat: COOL
D. Trade Filters
12. Type of Measure: Regulatory Standard [REGSTD]
Because the full extent of any contamination has not been
determined, a precise measure of trade damage is not yet possible.
Additionally, it is only in the last year, that some contamination
is being reported. There has been some effect thus far on trade
patterns. Norway however, has reported that some importers, such
as France, have raised questions regarding the quality of its
marine exports from the Barents Sea region. And, tens of thousands
of workers are potentially affected by the pollution.
13. Direct versus Indirect Impact: Direct
14, Relation of Trade Measures to Resource Impact
a. Directly related: NO
b. Indirectly related: YES FISH
c. Not related: NO
d. Process related: YES Habitat Loss
15. Trade Product Identification: FISH
The discharge of plutonium-239 from the torpedoes warheads,
assuming it occurs, will take place in bursts and will continue for
several years. Its consequences will be catastrophic. This
section of the world ocean is one of the most biologically
productive. Eighty percent of the fish caught in the Barents and
Norwegian Seas are caught precisely in the region where the
Komsomolets went down. Since plutonium has a half-life of 24,000
years, this part of the sea may by unsuitable for fishing for 600-
16. Economic Data
There is no precise data available as yet. Estimates vary
somewhat, depending on the source. Most sources claim that the
financial damage to Norway alone will be a loss of revenue in the
range of hundreds of millions of dollars annually, hopefully paid
by Russia. Over a five year period, the damage to the fishing
economy of the region is estimated to be around 3.5 trillion rubles
(roughly $3 billion in 1993 prices). This would be added to the
$500 million annually that will have be disbursed to Norway to
recoup sustained lost revenue.
17. Impact of Trade Restriction: LOW
The estimated loss in revenue to certain nations which fish in
the effected areas is the only indication of the potential
consequences that might arise.
18. Industry Sector: Fish
19. Exporter and Importer: NORWAY and MANY
Norway has the most to lose from the pollution. At stake is
the rich fishing industry, and by extension, the fish processing
industry in the area, which brings in at least $500 million
annually and employs thousands of workers. Other nations also fish
in the area, including Russia.
E. Environment Filters
20. Environmental Problem Type: Habitat loss
Those who believe that the situation is exaggerated point to
the great depth of the submarine. They rightly emphasize that few
fish have their habitat at these depths. But according to
environmental experts, this misses a crucial factor. Leaking
plutonium will be absorbed by phtoplankton, thus instigating a
possible uncontrollable spread of radioactivity. This spread is
further exacerbated when fish in the Barents and Norwegian Seas
feed on the plankton. Experts also reckon that levels of
radioactivity would be 10,000 times more toxic then arsenic.
This would render the area unsuitable for fishing operations for
hundreds of years.
Diversity: 150 higher plants per 10,000 km/sq (Russia)
22. Resource Impact: High and Product
The potential impact is high, effecting the marine environment
for centuries. According to a report to Russian President Boris
Yeltsin from the Atomic Energy Ministry, the area is one of the
productive spawning grounds for fish in the world.
23. Urgency of Problem: High and Hundreds of Years
Some plutonium-239 has been observed leaking from the
submarine already, and, when coupled with potential absorption by
phytoplankton and subsequent movement through the food chain, thus
presents an imminent problem. Furthermore, if the situation is not
remedied soon, the potential damage can last hundreds of years.
24. Substitutes: LIKE Products
25. Culture: No
26. Human Rights: No
27. Trans-Boundary Issues: Yes
The issue affects Russia and Norway the most. The success or
failure of the operation to halt potential environmental damage
will have a direct effect on Norway.
28. Relevant Literature
Baiduzhy, Andrei, "Russia has only a year left to render the
Komsomolets harmless," Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, 27
October, 1993, v. 45, n. 39, p. 24.
Boston Globe Editorial, "Nuclear Sub Corroding in Barents," 24
January 1993, p.16.
Broad, William, J. "Russians Seal Nuclear Sub on Sea Floor," New
York Times, 8 September 1994, A7.
Elliott, Lawrence, "Mayday on a Nuclear Sub," Reader's Digest,
November 1993, Vol. 143, No. 859, pp. 95-101.
Kurchtov, Col. A., "They Want to Behead the Komsomolets: Our
Descendants are Unlikely to Forgive us For the Execution," Moscow
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 11 October 1994, p.3, translated by the Foreign
Broadcast Information Service, London.
Lean, Geoffrey, "Russian Dumps 20 N-Reactors at Sea; Yeltsin Learns
Full Scale of Horror," London Observer, 11 April 1993, p. 1.
Mozgovoy, Alexsander, in the Moscow Rossiyskaya Gazeta, First
Edition, p. 2, 26 January, 1993, translated by the Foreign
Broadcast Information Service, London.
Nenashev, Sergei, "Raising the Komsomolets," Soviet Life, November
1991, n. 11, p. 58.
Westerwoudt, Theo, "Sealing a Radioactive Grave," World Press
Review, December 1994, Vol. 41, No. 12, p.44.
"Heavy Costs for Russia is Sunken Komsomolets Leaks," Moscow 2x2
Television, 16 June 1994.
"Sunken sub corroding, could release "plutonium soup," Moscow
Ostankino Television First Channel, 20 November 1993.
"Program to waterproof Komsomolets to continue in 1995," Moscow
Interfax, 23 July 1994, translated by the Foreign Broadcast
Information Service, London.
"Expedition to Study Submarine's Warheads, Moscow Ostankino
Television First Channel, and Orbita Networks, 3 August 1993.
Federal Broadcast Information Service, London, Moscow Interfax
"Exclusive" Report, 4 November, 1993.
The Komsomolets Disaster
Some five years ago the Russian nuclear attack submarine Komsomolets sank in the
Norwegian Sea. The event caused consternation in the Soviet Navy, high interest
in NATO maritime and intelligence circles, and apprehension among
environmentalists. This concern arose particularly in Norway, for the
submarine's broken hull holds two nuclear reactors and at least two torpedoes
with nuclear warheads containing plutonium, one of the most toxic substances
known to man. Since the sinking, Russian authorities have elicited to an
unprecedented degree scientific assistance from other countries and used remote
sensors and minisubmersibles to find Komsomolets, measure radiation leakage, and
assess the stability of the wreck. Ironically, the architect of this instrument
of war who designed it to hunt US and Norwegian ships is asking for and
receiving assistance in surveying the submarine and assessing its stability from
Komsomolets' intended victims.
Komsomolets--One of a Kind
Komsomolets means "member of the Young Communist League." She was launched in
May 1983 in Severodvinsk, a closed Soviet city on the Barents Sea with the
world's largest shipyard. She was 400 feet long, 37 feet high and 27 feet in
beam with a submerged displacement of 8,000 tons--a very large sub indeed.
Komsomolets had two nuclear reactors, long thought to be of revolutionary design
(liquid-metal coolant) but actually water-cooled. Her inner pressure hull was
titanium, light and strong, making her the world's deepest diving submarine, and
her operating depth below 3,000 feet was far below that of the best of US subs.
She was manned by about 70 men and could carry a mix of torpedoes and cruise
missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads. NATO dubbed her type Mike and
expected the unit to be first of a class of large attack submarines. She became
operational in late 1984 but no further Mikes were built. Although a prototype,
she went on operational patrols and was described as an antisubmarine warfare
unit in May 1989.
It is 7 April 1989. Komsomolets, of the Soviet Northern Fleet, is cruising at
1,250 feet below the surface of the Norwegian Sea, some 100 miles southwest of
Bjornoya (Bear Island) and 200 miles to the north of the Norwegian mainland. She
has been on patrol for 39 days.
At 11:00 a.m. Seaman Nodari Bukhnikashvili reports all well in Compartment 7,
the location of steering and the aftmost space on the ship. Moments later, a
high-pressure air line connecting to main ballast tanks allowing the submarine
to control its depth bursts its seal in the seventh compartment. Somehow a spray
of oil hits a hot surface there, and a flash fire begins in the high pressure
oxygen-rich air. Three minutes later Capt. Third Rank Vyacheslav Yudin,
Komsomolets' watch engineer in the control room, notes a sharp rise in
temperature aft. He calls Bukhnikashvili on the intercom, but receives no reply.
Lt. Igor Molchanov notes the time in the deck log.
Chief Engineer Valentin Babenko and Commanding Officer Captain First Rank
Yevgeniy Vanin are now in the control room. Babenko recommends Vanin smother the
apparent fire with freon, a nonflammable gas. Vanin delays, knowing the gas
would smother the seaman as well as the fire. But soon he reluctantly orders the
system activated. The high-pressure air line is feeding the fire in Compartment
7 like a blast furnace. Bukhnikashvili is the first of the crew to die. The fire
is now beyond containment.
Pressure aft forces oil into Compartment 6, and the fire arcs through cableways
despite closed hatches. Turbine generators here wind down, the emergency system
to protect the nuclear reactors from overload kicks in, and the propeller shaft
stops. Fearing a meltdown, the reactor officer shuts down the submarine's main
source of power. Now Komsomolets is powerless. With no way on and at a depth of
500 feet, she loses vital lift. Interior communications cut off. At 11:13 a.m.
oil pumps shut down and the sub loses hydraulic pressure to control surfaces.
The vertical rudder jams, and the stern diving planes cannot be controlled.
Captain Vanin orders the main ballast tanks blown, and Komsomolets rises to
nearly 300 feet. Here he repeats the procedure. Somehow, by blowing extra water
ballast, Vanin manages to bring the sub to the surface. As she founders, he
signals an encoded SOS to his headquarters.
But surfacing has not put Komsomolets out of danger. By 11:21 a.m., the fire has
spread through cableways to all aft compartments and has reached nearly 2,000°
F. The rubber coating on the outer hull designed to muffle acoustic detection
begins to slide off in strips.
Vanin orders all hands not engaged in damage control topside. Those fighting to
save the ship don masks using the emergency breathing system. But with the loss
of high-pressure air, fumes from Compartment 7 have brought carbon monoxide
(CO), a tasteless, odorless, and toxic gas, into the system. Men get dizzy and
doctor Lt. Leonid Zayats suspects something wrong. He rips off his mask and
tests the air. A fatal concentration of CO is detected. Now most of the crew
will fight for their ship in a swelter of smoke and foul air.
Vanin continues signaling Northern Fleet Headquarters. By 11:41 a.m. his message
is received, but garbled--a Soviet submarine somewhere is in trouble, and air
crews are alerted.
By noon the fire reaches forward compartments. Nothing is heard from the nine
crewmen manning the reactors in Compartment 4. Yudin and another officer don
self-contained breathing gear, open the hatch, and enter. Miraculously, they
find two officers still alive in the smoke-filled compartment and bring them
out. More rescuers try to ventilate Compartment 5 and bring out two crewmen. One
survives. In Compartment 3 Seaman Roman Filippov tries to restart a diesel
generator to provide ship's power. He succeeds but becomes ill and is ordered
topside. Capt. Third Rank Anatoliy Ispenkov takes over and continues to man the
At 12:19 p.m. Vanin abandons security protocol and sends a message in the clear
giving the submarine name, location, and dire circumstances. The Navy responds.
Fleet Admiral Chernavin, the senior Soviet naval officer, is alerted while at a
conference at the Defense Ministry. He orders his headquarters to take all steps
to rescue the crew, including assistance from Norway. Fleet Headquarters finds
three Soviet ships within 70 miles of Komsomolets and orders them to the scene.
The first Red Banner Northern Fleet rescue aircraft takes off from the Kola
Peninsula at 12:43 p.m. But M-12 amphibians are not dispatched, and no one
alerts the Norwegians. Nonetheless, they know of the alert through intercepted
communications, but delay sending help because it is unclear whether a practice
rescue is under way.
At 2:20 p.m. the rescue aircraft radios Vanin and hears that the fire is not
spreading. Most men assemble on the weather deck. At 2:40 p.m. the rescue
aircraft breaks through the clouds and spots Komsomolets dead in the water.
Visibility is fair, sea state moderate. The men are heartened by the sight of
aircraft. Thinking that surface help will arrive soon, they do not don wet
suits, although the water is cold enough at 36° F to kill them in 15 minutes. In
a short time the wind begins to kick up, seas rise to 4 feet, and the men hang
on to the slippery deck. For the next two hours everything seems under control.
The crew clears Compartment 5, and the ship is not taking on water. Surface
rescue is expected to arrive at 6:00 p.m. Most of the crew are now on the
weather decks as the smoke inside the ship is becoming intolerable. In the
control room visibility is less than 6 inches. Few now remain inside. Vanin,
Yudin, and Molchanov in the control room, Ispenkov manning the generator, and
Warrant Officers Slyusarenko, Krasnobayev, and Chernikov remain inside to save
For more than four hours Captain Vanin has been attempting to right his ship.
Upon surfacing he corrects an initial port list by counterflooding. Two hours
later a starboard list develops. Vanin is handicapped by damaged equipment,
hazardous conditions, and a nearly complete lack of information from his
About 4:30 p.m. Vanin orders two port ballast tanks blown to trim the sub. This
does not work and serves only to accelerate taking on water. Komsomolets' after
ballast tanks are not equipped with kingston valves that would close under
water, and her pressure hull has been breached. She begins taking on water
quickly astern. No damage control measures can save her now. At 4:42 p.m.
Captain Vanin orders the crew to abandon ship and minutes later sends his last
At 5:00 p.m. two life rafts are inflated on the bow, and the aircraft drops a
rescue pod. Men begin to enter them. The captain goes below to get the last of
his crew, but now Komsomolets is sinking fast. The last man on the bridge shuts
the hatch as water pours over the conning tower. The water would drown those
still inside if he left the hatch open. Komsomolets is equipped with an escape
capsule, and perhaps they can use it. At 5:08 p.m. Komsomolets begins to sink
stern first. It will be an hour before surface help arrives.
The self-rescue is not going well. One life raft overturns. Men crowd aboard,
but some have to cling to the sides. The second raft goes down with the sub,
breaks free, but too far for the men to reach. More small rafts are dropped from
the rescue aircraft, but there are not enough for the 50 men in the water. On
the large raft, men's hands are getting numb. Doctor Zayats tells them to hang
on by their teeth. Some succeed, but in the next hour more than half, including
Babyenko and Filippov, slip away and drown.
Inside the sinking Komsomolets six men are still alive. Captain Vanin guides
them to their last hope, the escape capsule. American submariners would not have
this option. They close the hatch. Vanin counts . . . himself, Yudin,
Slyusarenko, Krasnobayev, Chernikov . . . one is missing . . . Ispenkov. They
hear a knocking, try to open the hatch, but it is too late. The outer
compartment's walls collapse. Komsomolets goes down 300, 500, 1,000 feet. At
1,300 feet the scale no longer records, but the sub continues down. The men
desperately try to release the capsule but without success. Another explosion
rocks the ship, and suddenly the escape capsule breaks free--flying to the
surface. Once there, the hatch blows off. But only Slyusarenko is able to get
out, as the capsule floods in the rough seas. Vanin, Yudin, Krasnobayev, and
Chernikov sink in the capsule to rejoin Komsomolets more than 5,000 feet below.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m. a fishing boat arrives and picks up 30 crewmen. Of the
69 crewmembers, 39 are already dead. Molchanov is recovered and feels fine, but
the smoke inhaled while keeping the deck log in the control room and the water's
chill have taken their toll. He and two more will soon die. Doctor Zayats and
Warrant Officer Slyusarenko are among the survivors.
Komsomolets did not die quietly. In the era of glasnost this incident could not
be covered up, even in the Soviet media. Moreover, the Norwegians observed the
rescue attempts and were worried about radioactivity released in their economic
zone. Recriminations mounted. The Norwegians claimed they could have reached the
scene by air or surface two hours before the submarine sank. Within a week a
blow-by-blow account appeared in the widely circulated Soviet newspapers
Komsmolskaya Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya with detailed time-events from the
rescue aircraft point of view. Within a month the crew, dead and alive, was
awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and more stories explained why it took so
long for help to arrive. Two months after the sinking, the oceanographic rescue
ship Akademik Mstislav Keldysh using submersibles found Komsomolets a mile down.
The Russian Oceanographic Fleet and the Keldysh
If effort expended at sea is any criterion, the Russians lead the world in
oceanographic research. From a humble beginning of one wooden schooner in 1922,
the Soviet research fleet grew to over 300, more than the rest of the world
combined. At the peak of its efforts, the Institute of Oceanology of the Academy
of Sciences oversaw 15 separate institutes in acoustics, geophysics, biology,
and other marine-related sciences. Although most of these institute's scientific
ships were involved in fishing research, at least 120 were hydrographic in
nature. Some of these were subordinated to the Navy and manned by military
personnel, but most had a mixture of naval and civilian mariners and
technicians, and the hulls were constructed outside the USSR. With the reduction
in naval units and overseas operations now being experienced by the Russian
Navy, oceanographic operations at sea are also being drawn down. But
impressively capable ships still operate.
One of the most capable of Russian oceanographic research ships is Akademik
Mstislav Keldysh. At 400 feet in length and over 5,000 tons displacement,
Keldysh is the world's largest oceanographic research ship, with 18 laboratories
and space for additional special-purpose rooms. A crew of 50 supports the
efforts of over 80 scientists-technicians. The outstanding specialty of the
Keldysh is as the mother ship of the Mir submersibles.
The 1991 Survey
The international outcry following the sinking of Komsomolets forced the Soviet
and its successor Russian Government to take serious steps to determine the
dangers posed by the disaster. They apparently wished to avoid another Chornobyl'
cover-up. The USSR Council of Ministers approved a government commission's
recommendation to examine and raise the submarine a year after the sinking. They
gave the lead to Igor D. Spasskiy, head of the Russian Bureau that designed
Komsomolets. Besides surveying the ship, he wanted to determine the reason it
sank and to measure any radiation hazards and propose solutions. Spasskiy
devised a program comprising efforts of hydrography, fishing, and oceanography
institutes with the research ship Keldysh as the centerpiece featuring experts
in ocean sciences and nuclear reactors and weapons.
In August of 1991, Keldysh returned to the scene. She used towed sonar arrays,
probes, trawls, and core-samplers for site measurements of the water and sea
bottom in the mile-deep area of the wreck. But most of the detailed measurements
were taken by her on-board submersibles Mir 1 and Mir 2.
The remote TV was able to look inside the hull in some places. It appeared as if
there had been an explosion in the bow section, causing concern because this
compartment houses the torpedoes with their nuclear warheads and lethally
poisonous plutonium. Experts preliminarily concluded that this explosion was
from gas fumes in Compartment 1 and not from high explosives in the torpedoes.
The following conclusions were drawn from the 1991 survey:
Settling of the submarine between the 1989 and the 1991 surveys was not
The inner (pressure) hull had been breached in a number of places.
The reactor was venting somewhat, and the torpedo tube doors were open but the
torpedoes appeared intact.
Radiation leakage was minimal, but corrosion might cause future increases.
Raising the submarine would be difficult.
It might be possible to seal the wreck hermetically on the bottom.
Further surveys were absolutely necessary.
The 1992 Survey
In April 1992 the Russian government approved another expedition to clarify and
further delineate the damage to Komsomolets. Because Keldysh was not available
during the July-August weather window, a shorter May time frame was scheduled. A
total of 286 people took part, including one Norwegian and 56 Russian
scientists. The expedition used many of the same devices from the year before,
but added some deep-water remote viewing equipment. The Mirs conducted more than
75 hours of manned bottom time.
The expedition looked at the rescue chamber about a half-mile from the hull,
checked out the bow of the submarine, and took extensive samples of water,
bottom sediments, and organisms. Poor weather limited the time available for
Damage was more extensive than noted earlier. The inner or pressure hull had
been breached near the bow. It had cracks running lengthwise. The Russians
acknowledged the presence of torpedoes with nuclear warheads in the bow, but
they stated that tests revealed no concentrations of radiation in excess of
established drinking water standards. Further, the hull did not appear to be
suffering additional damage from deterioration.
The scientists concluded that the loss of hull integrity precluded raising the
submarine, that the hull should be monitored periodically for leaks, and that
perhaps the hull should be sealed or the torpedo compartment cut off, raised,
and buried. In any case, more expeditions were needed.
Mir-1 and Mir-2 are the most capable manned submersibles in the Russian
inventory. Only the United States, France, and Japan also have craft capable of
carrying special instruments and a crew of three to below 20,000 feet, allowing
first-hand observation of 98 percent of the ocean floor. The Mirs were built in
Finland in 1987 for the Academy of Sciences and have been engaged in
oceanographic research for over six years, often with international crews.
Mirs usually operate in pairs so that one can serve as a rescue vessel for the
other. Ballast is adjusted, and predive checks are conducted much like a
preflight. The pilot, copilot, and scientist climb into the tight
6-and-a-half-foot-diameter sphere that can withstand pressures of 2,000
atmospheres (30,000 pounds/square inch). A Mir is lowered by crane into the
water, unhitched, and towed away from Keldysh by small boat. Then it is ready to
descend untethered at 80 feet a minute, or about one hour to drop a mile. It can
move at 5 knots underwater and has air for 20 hours.
Mir has three lights and can record visual images with both photographic and
video cameras and make numerous electronic and hydrologic recordings with other
sensors. It has two arms capable of lifting 150 pounds and cans for storing
tools or bottom samples. Mir has navigation, communications, and recording
systems and can obtain exact position fixes from beacons set in the sea bottom.
In addition to dives on Komsomolets, international crews have conducted Mir
dives in abysses off the American Pacific coast and on the Titanic wreck in the
For the Komsomolets mission, the Mirs had been equipped with dosimeters and
special absorbing pads for radionuclide measurements. From 23 to 31 August 1991
the Mirs made six 10- to 13-hour dives together on Komsomolets with crews of
hydronauts, scientists, and navy officers. The first dive determined that
radioactivity around the wreck did not pose a hazard to the surveyors.
Subsequently, the crews inspected the hull and debris; took water, bottom, and
biologic samples; and took photos and videotapes.
The survey determined that the reactor's hermetic seal was broken but that
radiation emission was so minor that people and the environment were not
endangered. Subsequent corrosion, however, might damage the organisms found
around the site.
The 1993 Survey
The Russians published results of the 1991 and 1992 surveys, including their
rather benign prognosis of radioactive seepage. As plans for the next mission
were under way, they changed their tack, handing out increasingly dire warnings
of radiation hazards from the wreck. Whether these warnings were based on more
recent findings from the earlier survey or were attempts to elicit Western
cooperation and funding for measurements and cleanup is not clear.
Academician Spasskiy warned the Commissioner for External Relations of the
European Community in May 1993 that two years of research revealed that
plutonium leakage could begin in a couple of years, could disperse a "toxic
danger" quickly, and spread radioactive contamination as much as 60 miles along
undersea currents, poisoning edible sea life. His warnings reached a large
audience--readers of The New York Times Op Ed page.
Eventually Dutch, Norwegian, and American specialists joined the Russians in
Keldysh for an extensive survey. Sensors used were even more elaborate than
those in 1992 as foreign governments contributed expertise and
equipment--including robots and a high resolution video camera developed by the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Sony.
Results of the August 1993 survey suggested that waters at the site were not
mixing vertically, and thus the sea life in the area was not being rapidly
contaminated. Slow currents were moving north, not toward Europe, and were
remaining at the 1-mile depth. Dr. Charles Hollister, an expert on deep-sea
storms from Woods Hole, doubted that the heavy plutonium, bonding with clay,
would cause significant contamination, but noted further study was needed,
inasmuch as underwater storms can move mud equal to the annual discharge of the
Russian engineers found the escape capsule that had separated from the submarine
and later sunk. They wanted to recover logs and data books inside for further
research into the causes of the disaster. As they were raising the capsule,
however, the cable broke, and another attempt was not made on this cruise.
The 1993 survey detected radioactive cesium 137 from the corroding reactors but
determined that contamination from the reactors remained slight.
The most startling discovery of the 1993 survey was a hole over 20 feet wide
blown in the forward torpedo compartment. If this hole was noted during earlier
surveys, it was not reported in the open press. Current speculation is that an
explosion of hydrogen from storage batteries caused the damage. The entire
compartment was deformed, and at least two of the nuclear torpedoes were "mashed
up" in their tubes and could not be safely recovered. Leakage of plutonium was
not immediately evident but would be unlikely to spread far.
Biologic, sediment, and water samples were sent to laboratories of all
cooperating countries. Preliminary results showed environmental impact to be
slight and that deep currents in the area were weaker than previously believed.
Spasskiy nonetheless asserts that Komsomolets continues to corrode and that
radioactive release will increase. Damage to human health is not significant
now, but monitoring will be needed to ensure that any future threat is
In mid-September 1993, after Keldysh returned but too soon for extensive
research on recovered samples, Tengiz Borisov, head of the Russian Special
Committee for the Conduct of Underwater Work, told reporters that his committee
had decided to seal the corroding torpedoes in place in summer 1994. He added,
"If there is a leak, fishing will be impossible in the Norwegian Sea for between
600 and 700 years." The discrepancy between this statement and more benign
findings on site was not explained.
Near the end of 1993, a decision was finally reached. The Russian Government's
Special Committee for the Conduct of Underwater Work found that radioactive
seepage was at that time insignificant but that deterioration of the torpedoes
could cause serious consequences in two to three years. Therefore, it would be
necessary to seal the bow of Komsomolets, using a special compound yet to be
developed, entombing it in a special sarcophagus.
A Reuters wire release from Moscow on 12 July 1994 stated, "Russia said
yesterday it had sealed a sunken nuclear submarine off Norway to prevent
radioactive leaks. The Komsomolets . . . is now embedded in mud in international
Komsomolets lies broken a mile deep in a quiet part of the Norwegian Sea.
Natural sediment drifts down slowly burying the wreck, its debris, and most of
its crew. Few artifacts have been raised. One of them, the ship's clock, was
sent to the Central Naval Museum in Leningrad. It stopped at 5:43 p.m. on 7
Komsomolets' history and general description are from Jane's Fighting Ships
1989-90. Information on her reactors, torpedoes, operating depth, and prototype
status was obtained by the author at the Center for Naval Analyses in an open
conversation on 21 October 1993 with Academician Igor Spasskiy, head of the
Rubin Design Bureau and designer of Komsomolets.
This year, an article in Morskoy Sbornik ("The Tragedy of a Ship and the Honor
of Her Crew," by V. Krapivin, No. 4, 1994, pp. 44-56) presented for the first
time in the open press the Russian Navy's version of the causes of the sinking,
based on recovered logs, interviews with all survivors, and examination of the
hull and debris. In answer to the many articles blaming the Navy's inadequate
maintenance and damage control training for the tragedy, Krapivin, a Captain
First Rank in the Navy's technical service, reconstructs the accident from
beginning to end and, in the process, exonerates the crew. The day of the
patrol, the depth of the submarine, the damage control stations and duties of
crew members and their actions, and the technical explanation of how Komosolets
caught fire, flooded, and foundered are drawn from this source.
The description of the sinking also is based on the
following primary sources:
An article in Sovietskaya Rossiya ("The Last Order," by N. Domkovskiy, 15 April
1989, p.6) gives the point of view from the rescue aircraft.
The 13 May 1989 issue of Krasnaya Zvezda (pp. 1-2) lists the full names and
survivor status of the crew, and it also contains an interview of Fleet Admiral
V. Chernavin, who gives the view of the Main Navy Staff and provides background
information on the cause of the fire.
An article in Sovietskaya Voin ("At the Deserted Mooring," by N. Cherkashin,
January 1990, p. 12) gives time-lines and individual activities aboard the
submarine, based on logs and personal testimony.
The Wall Street Journal of 14 March 1990 (p. A-1) provides the length of the
patrol, the compartment layout, Norwegian reactions, and time-lines after the
A fully footnoted version of this article is available from the author on