It was reported today (October 11, 2012) that the “Russian Defense Ministry is planning to raise and scrap two sunken nuclear submarines in the northern Barents and Kara seas” (RIAN).

 In total, eight nuclear submarines have sunk as a consequence of either accident or extensive damage: 2 from the US Navy, 4 from the Soviet Navy and 2 from the Russian Navy. (wiki). According to RT: The Russian government has recently released archives showing that there are 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships contaminated ships, and 14 nuclear reactors in the Kara Sea – and most of these objects have been decaying there since the Soviet era.

 The two submarines the Russians are planning on retrieving are:

1. K-159 November Class Nuclear Submarine

  • The B-159 (K-159), a November class nuclear submarine, sank in the Barents Sea in August 2003, 790 feet (238 m) down, with nine of her crew and 1760 lbs (800 kg) of spent nuclear fuel, while being moved for dismantling (RIAN). A
  • According to NATO:The decommissioned Russian submarine, B-159, was being towed to a breakers yard in 2003, when it broke loose and sank in rough weather in the Barents Sea at the entrance of the Murmansk River, resulting in the loss of nine Russian sailors. Two nuclear reactors were onboard the submarine when it sank, but the reactors were shut down and in a safe state. This survey was the first stage of an international recovery effort.

The NATO research vessel “Alliance” was recently engaged in surveying the wreck of the B-159 sunken Russian nuclear submarine, at the request of the Russian Federation and as part of an international effort.

2. K-27; Project 645 Submarine

Recently the K-27 has been described as a “time bomb” if it is not removed from the ocean floor. Why? They say it is because the fuel is highly enriched uranium. It is interesting to note that the Russians had actually prepared the reactor to be sealed prior to dumping it in the Kara Sea. The lead-bismuth coolant is solid at room temperature and below, and therefore has encased the nuclear fuel in a solid block of lead-bismuth. So is there really any concern about the reactor leaking, allowing water in and around the nuclear fuel elements, and going critical? Probably not.

According to recent surveys there is – no corrosion damage of the out hull visible and levels of Cesium-137 are lower than previous measurements– per Hilde Elise Heldal of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (barent) This implies that there has been no increase in the leakage of radioactive material from the fuel.

The K-27 was an experimental attack submarine built in 1962 and decommissioned in 1979 due to its troublesome nuclear reactors. Her reactor compartment was sealed and the submarine was scuttled in the eastern Kara Sea in 1982 at the depth of 220 feet (75 m) (RIAN). Although the Barent Observer reports that the K-27 was dumped in only 30 meters of water (Barent).  Per RIAN, the international guidelines say decommissioned vessels should be buried at least 3000 m under the sea.

The submarine was sunk just on the east side of Novaya Zemlya, one of two primary locations for nuclear weapons testing by the Soviet Union and Russia.

The K-27 was the first liquid metal reactor system, the Project 645 submarine. The reactor was cooled by lead-bismuth. On May 24, 1968 9 men were killed in the reactor accident. After shutting down the reactor and sealing the compartment, the Soviet Navy scuttled her in shallow water of the Kara Sea on September 6, 1982, contrary to the recommendation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (Wiki).

According to a Russian technical report on the accident:

  • The reactor accident was caused by “an uncontrollable accumulation of significant masses of lead oxides in the primary circuit…they could have formed when the pipelines of the primary circuit gas system, which were necessary for its repair, were depressurized, and thus the air penetrated into the primary circuit. Besides that, the primary circuit was contaminated by products of oil pyrolysis, which was the working medium for seals of rotational shafts of pumps that provided the gas leak proofness of the primary circuit. Masses of oil were spilled into the primary circuit because the oil seals had not been reliable enough.”
  • There was a steam generator leak that increased the preexisting oxides and impurities in the reactor core. This caused a significant reduction in heat removal thereby causing a negative temperature reactivity effect and a drop in power by 7%.
  • There were no operator instructions for this type of event and  the reactor operator tried to maintain the power by removing the control rods from the core per the commander’s directions. All 12 control rods were removed within 30 minutes although they were designed to compensate for 4000 operating hours.
  • The fuel melted in the areas where the heat removal capability was decreased. The radiation signals were not in the same area and the operator was not informed that the levels were increasing.
  • After the accident, the Russian Obninsk Institute of Physics and Power Engineering (IPPE) worked on the problems of the reactor design and the use of lead-bismuth coolant. (summary from: Use of Russian Technology of Ship Reactors with Lead-Bismuth Coolant in Nuclear Power, Zrodnikov, et al)

Igor Koudrik, a member of the Bellona group, a primarily anti-nuclear environmental group is claiming that the K-27 is a “K-27 is a potentially radioactive time bomb” (Barent).

So why now? It is unclear to me given my knowledge of the reactor system and the fact that the reactor is encased in a block of solid lead-bismith, which does not react with water, and there are no signs of increased radiation around the reactor, that there is a radiation “time bomb”.

According to the Barent Observer the motivation may be the quest for oil not environmental – they report that the Russian oil company, Rosnet,has been conducting seismic studies this past summer in the Kara Sea mapping the area before they in partnership with Exxon start drilling for oil and gas. So perhaps this is one time when the environmental goals of Bellona align with the energy exploration goals of the Russian government.

As I was researching information for this story I opted to digress and find out if any other nuclear submarines had been lifted off of the ocean sea and came across the spy story of Project Azorian. It was so interesting, I had to include a summary!

Project Azorian

What a difference thirty years makes! During the Cold War, the US established a scam operation for deep sea mining as a way of raising the K-129 Soviet ballistic missile submarine. In 1974 the US set up a clandestine operation to raise the submarine and gain intelligence on the Russian nuclear submarines and the nuclear weapons that they carried on their missiles. The operation was called “Project Azorian” – and was a secret agreement between the US and Howard Hughes for deep sea exploration. According to the CIA:

  •  The story began in 1968 when K-129, a Soviet Golf II-class submarine carrying three SS-N-4 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, sailed from the naval base at Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to take up its peacetime patrol station in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii. Soon after leaving port, the submarine and its entire crew were lost.  After the Soviets abandoned their extensive search efforts, the US located the submarine about 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii on the ocean floor 16,500 feet below. Recognizing the immense value of the intelligence on Soviet strategic capabilities that would be gained if the submarine were recovered, the CIA agreed to lead such a recovery effort with support from the Department of Defense.
  • CIA engineers faced a daunting task: lift the huge 1,750-ton, 132-foot-long wrecked submarine intact from an unknown ocean abyss more than three miles below—under total secrecy.
  • In 1970, after careful study, a team of CIA engineers and contractors determined that the only technically feasible approach was to use a large mechanical claw to grasp the hull and heavy-duty winches mounted on a surface ship to lift it.
  • The ship would be called the Glomar Explorer, a commercial deep-sea mining vessel ostensibly built and owned by billionaire Howard Hughes, who provided the plausible cover story that his ship was conducting marine research at extreme ocean depths and mining manganese nodules lying on the sea bottom. The ship would have the requisite stability and power to perform the task at hand.

Per GWU:

  • Approval for the operation was given by President Nixon.
  •  The developing U.S.-Soviet détente, symbolized by the cordial meetings between President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at the May 1972 Moscow summit, threatened to derail Azorian. In July 1972, the special Executive Committee, which oversaw the project, asked the high-level and top secret 40 Committee, which oversaw all sensitive intelligence operations, to review the project due to the possibility that, by the time it was ready for deployment in 1974, “the developing political climate might prohibit mission approval.” The views of other senior government officials cleared for access to “Project Azorian” were also solicited. The response was far from positive. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Intelligence), and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) all recommended that “Project Azorian” be terminated because, in addition to the rapidly rising costs of the program and the political risks involved, the value of the anticipated intelligence gain from the operation was probably less than what the CIA believed. Despite the impressive heft of these negative assessments of “Project Azorian,” on December 11, 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered that the program be continued. This proved to be the last major bureaucratic obstacle that “Project Azorian” had to clear. (pp. 16-19) (GWU)
  •  On June 7, 1974, President Nixon personally approved launching the “Project Azorian” mission, with the stipulation that the Hughes Glomar Explorer not begin its work until after he had returned from a summit meeting in Moscow scheduled to last from June 27, 1974, to July 3, 1974. The Glomar Explorer arrived at the recovery site 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii on July 4, 1974, the day after Nixon left Moscow. Recovery operations commenced immediately to attach the pipe-string collars around the Soviet submarine. (pp. 36-37) (GWU)

The submarine broke as it was being raised and part of it sunk back to the bottom of the sea. As they prepared to go back and complete the mission a series of serendipitous events occurred:

  • In June 1974, just before the Glomar set sail, thieves had broken into the offices of the Summa Corporation and stolen secret documents, one tying Howard Hughes to CIA and the Glomar Explorer. Desperate to recover this document, CIA called in the FBI, which in turn enlisted the Los Angeles Police Department. The search drew attention, and by the autumn of 1974 the media began to pick up rumors of a sensational story. (CIA)

The first sketchy details of the program were published by the Los Angeles Times in February 1975 and by columnist Jack Anderson in a March 18 radio program, and were further developed in Seymour Hersh’s March 19, 1975 article in the New York Times on the Glomar Explorer. (GWU)

Among the contents of the recovered section were the bodies of six Soviet submariners. They were given a formal military burial at sea. In a gesture of good will, Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates presented a film of the burial ceremony to Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1992. (CIA)

Was the CIA able to recover the nuclear weapons and study them in detail? The CIA overview provides no information but according to one comment the History Channel show on this same subject claimed that a few warheads were recovered by the CIA and studied.

In summary – it probably is a good idea for the Russians to recover the reactors from their nuclear submarines – is it a ticking time bomb? Probably not, but it would make sense to clear the sea floor before drilling for oil.

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