Published on Thursday, August 17, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian (UK)
Scientists Fear Nuclear Meltdown On Seabed
by Paul Brown
An uncontrolled chain reaction in the engine compartment of the stricken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk was "the worst case scenario" being contemplated by Russian experts yesterday.
If that happened the fuel would heat up to 1800 to 2000C, enough to melt the engine compartment and outer casing, releasing molten fuel onto the seabed.
Mils Bohmer, a Russian nuclear physicist, said this would release fission products like plutonium, caesium and uranium into the fertile fishing grounds of the Barents sea. However, the true state of the reactors is not yet known.
"We were told that the first stage of shutting the reactors down had been completed, but there is no word on what happened after that," he said. "If the crew managed to shut them down completely then they should remain safe, but if not then the fuel elements may start to heat up and begin an uncontrolled chain reaction."
Mr Bohmer was speaking in Oslo, where he has been helping the Norwegian environmental group the Bellona Foundation in its efforts to get the derelict submarines of the Russian fleet made safe.
He said because there had been an explosion in the forward area it was not possible to know the effect on the crew in the engine compartment at the rear had been or how much time they may have had to act.
The reactor in the submarine was of a new design with a "natural" cooling system which works even if there is no electrical power, but it might not be effective if there was damage or the reactor had not been fully shut down.
William Peden, a Greenpeace disarmament campaigner, said that the automatic cooling system worked on convection and its efficiency would be badly affected because the stricken vessel was lying on its side.
"There is also concern because the explosion would have caused a breach in the hull part of the containment if the radioactivity begins to leak out," he said. "There is a real fear of a meltdown if the cooling system does work properly. To protect the area from serious radioactive pollution the Russians have no alternative but to raise the sub."
Mr Bohmer believed the Russians would want to raise the sub anyway because it was in relatively shallow water - 108 metres (353ft) - and, as a relatively new boat it contains military secrets the Russians would be keen to protect from other powers.
In one sense the sea is the best place for damaged nuclear equipment because of the dilution and cooling effect of vast quantities of sea water.
However, the Kursk has gone down in one of the most productive fisheries in the world, where Norwegians catch large quantities of cod, some of which is exported for English fish and chips.
The Russians have suffered nuclear accidents there before. However, the Komsomolets, which sunk in April 1989, rests in 1,850 metres (6,069ft) of water and although it is leaking slightly is not contaminating fishing grounds.
Yesterday the news from the area of the Kursk was good. Tests of water and air samples by the Norwegian Nuclear Protection Authority said five water samples and two air samples gathered through large filters on Tuesday showed no trace of abnormal radiation. The samples were gathered by Norwegian military vessels monitoring the site.
The authority said it will continue to monitor radiation levels through a network of permanent monitoring stations in northern Norway.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000