BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Europe
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 23 August, 2000, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Radiation fears remain
The submarine is stranded between Norway and Russia
The Russian submarine Kursk, trapped over 100m (350 ft) beneath the icy Barents Sea, is the sixth nuclear submarine to sink since the 1960s.

However, environmentalists fear that the risk of radiation leaking from the Kursk's nuclear reactor could have more serious implications because it rests in shallow waters.

The other five submarines which have sunk lie in depths of up to 4,800m (16,000 ft), where, experts say, they pose less of a danger for marine life and fishing grounds.

Norwegian experts and Russian officials reported no increase in radiation levels in the area of the Kursk in the days following the accident.

A report by a Russian TV channel that radiation levels had inceased was dismissed by the Norwegian nuclear watchdog, the Bellona foundation, who said such fluctuations were normal.

Warning system

Nevertheless, Norway has appealed for the reinstatement of a nuclear emergency warning system which it used to share with Russia.

the Komsomolets
Forty two sailors died when the Komsomolets sank in 1989
Under a 1995 agreement each side promised to inform the other immediately of incidents like the sinking of the Kursk, but the Russians cancelled the agreement in 1997.

Norway, whose border lies barely 100 km from the Russian city of Murmansk says it is vital to get the system working again.

The governor of Finnmark in northern Norway, next door to Russia, Gunnar Kjonnoy, told BBC News Online that he thought the Kursk was very unlikely to be a problem for the Norwegians.

He said he believed Russian assurances that the submarine's reactors had been shut down, and he expected they would be checking the temperature of the reactors.

He hoped the Russians would salvage the Kursk so there would be no fears of radioactive contamination of the Barent Sea.

Close watch

The Kursk is lying about 300km (184 miles) east of Norway's Arctic coast.

Seawater is checked for radiation
Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry says the radiation risk from the Kursk is minimal because of an automatic protection system designed to shut down the boat's twin reactors in the event of an accident.

But Norway, which already monitors radiation from the Komsomolets, another Russian sub that sank in its waters in 1989, continues to monitor the situation closely.

Norwegian scientists say vigilance is needed since it is not yet clear what caused the boat to sink, or the level of damage it has sustained.

Fears for sub's integrity

Despite Russian experts' claims that the Kursk's reactor will be safe for "many centuries", environmentalists are also demanding that the boat's reactor should be raised as soon as possible.

Nuclear sub losses
1963: USS Thresher sinks off the coast of New England
1968: USS Scorpion lost in the mid-Atlantic
1970: Soviet November class sub sinks 480km north-west of Spain
1986: Soviet sub sinks 960km north-east of Bermuda
1989 : Soviet boat 'Konsomolets' sinks off northern Norway
2000 : Russian Oscar class sub 'Kursk' sinks in the Barents sea
"The Kursk adds another submarine and another reactor to the ocean bed," said a spokesman for the environmental group Greenpeace, William Peden.

"Even if there are no reactor leaks right now, there is the possibility that some time in the future there could be, and this submarine's integrity is already threatened," he added.

Thomas Cochran of the US National Resources and Defence Commission, said: "There's a general feeling to keep ocean pollution as low as reasonably achievable.

"Any amount of radiation causes cancer and... once you start, you don't know where it's going to end up."

Rotting ships

Experts say a wider threat also remains from Russian nuclear vessels lying in various states of disrepair in Russia's northern ports and shipyards.

According to the Bellona foundation, at least half of an estimated 100 laid-up subs still have nuclear fuel on board.

The foundation also believes nuclear waste is being stored in nine rotting ships, and a further 17 nuclear reactors have been dumped in the Kara sea.

A decade ago, the Soviet Navy routinely dumped spent nuclear fuel in Arctic waters, and Russia continued to use far eastern seas for the same purpose until Japan sponsored a proper waste disposal scheme.

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Europe stories