TED Case Studies

Komsomolets Submarine and Radiation Leakage

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      CASE NUMBER:            267
      CASE MNEMONIC:          KOMSO
      CASE NAME:              Komsomolets Radiation Disaster


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


2.    Description

      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:

     CHERNOB case

     ARCTIC case

     JAPANSEA case

     MURUROA case

     JAPANPL case

     TEMELIN case

     MOCHO case

     DAYABAY case

      Keyword Clusters

      (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 Incomplete

      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

the operation.

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-

700 years.

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.

21.  Species

      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

phtoplankton 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.

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