K-159 was a November-class (Project 627A) nuclear-powered attack submarine built by Sevmash and commissioned into the Soviet Navy in 1963. Decommissioned in 1989, K-159 was laid up at Gremikha for 14-years as a rusting unmaintained hulk… with her reactors still fueled. When she foundered while under tow to Polyarny on 28 August 2003, K-159 sank in 780-ft (238-metres) with 9 of her crew and 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel aboard.
Ten years on, no plan to lift sunken nuclear sub
K-159, the rust bucket of a nuclear powered submarine that sank off the coast of Russia’s Kola Peninsula on August 30, 2003, remains on the seabed in one of the best fishing areas for cod.
There are still no definite plans to lift the rusty November-class submarine from the depth of 238 meters in the Barents Sea. K-159 sank during towing from Gremikha naval base towards Polyarny shipyard northwest of Murmansk. The initial plan was to lift the submarine in autumn 2004.
In 2007, the St. Petersburg based design and engineering company Malakhit got the order to prepare a lifting plan. A decision would be taken in the beginning of 2008. That is five years ago. Nothing has happened since and no one is longer talking loudly about concrete steps on how to lift the submarine.
Nine of K-159’s crew members went down with the submarine after one of the pontoons that kept her floating was ripped away. Onboard, the two nuclear reactors still contain 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel with an estimated amount of radioactivity of some 600,000 Curie.
The waters outside the Kildin island, where K-159 sank, is one of the best joint fishing areas for Norwegian, Russian trawlers and consequently possible leakages of radioactivity concerns both countries. Ingar Amundsen is head of section for international nuclear safety with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority.
“It is reported that no serious leakage from the submarine is observed so far and that measurements close to the sub indicate only background activity levels. Our bilateral marine monitoring program does not show elevated levels of radioactivity in the water,” says Ingar Amundsen to BarentsObserver.
Still, Amundsen is concerned about the future.
“K-159 sank under tragic circumstances ten years ago. The nuclear submarine contains spent nuclear fuel in its reactor and therefore represents a potential source or radioactive contamination in the future,” says Amundsen. He continues: “We are in dialogue with the Russian party to increase the monitoring activities in these areas. We also look at what risks objects in the Arctic containing spent nuclear fuel may possess to the Arctic environment.”
Last October, BarentsObserver reported that K-159 was included in a revised draft strategy developed to clean Russia’s Arctic areas. The problem is that Russia today doesn’t have the capacity to do such lifting operation on its own. When the ill-fated “Kursk” submarine was lifted from the bottom of the Barents Sea in 2002, the operation was led by a consortium of European companies headed by the Dutch salvage giant Mammoet.
“Potential lifting of K-159 or other objects in the Arctic is a Russian responsibility,” says Ingar Amundsen. “We have informed the Russian party that the marine resources in the North is of great interest to us, and that we continue to gain knowledge about status of contamination and potential risks in the future, he says.
This year’s quota for North East Arctic cod is 940,000 tonnes and scientists recommend increasing the quota further to 993,000 tonnes for 2014, as previously reported by BarentsObserver.
K-159 had been laid up in Gremikha since 1989 and her hull was rusted through in many places already before the disastrous towing started. How ten years at the sea bed have speeded the corrosion of the hull on the 50 years old submarine is unclear. No underwater photos of the submarine have been published after 2003.