ICE Case Studies
Case Number: 38
Case Mnemonic: RUSSSUB
Case Name: Komsomolets Disaster
Case Author: from Vincent Bonner
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 1995.
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. Duration: 1994
Region: North Europe
5. Actors: Russia and Norway
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.
6. Type of Environmental Problem: Pollution Sea,
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.
7. Type of Habitat: Ocean
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-
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.
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.
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.
8. Act and Harm Sites:
Act SiteHarm SiteExample
RussiaArctic SeaNuclear Sub Sinking
9. Type of Conflict: Interstate
10. Level of Conflict: Warharm
11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 100,000
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.
12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct
13. Level of Strategic Interest: Region
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 the operation.
14. Outcome of Dispute: Compromise
15. Related ICE and TED Cases
16. Relevant Websites and 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.
Relevant Web Sites
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