The Virginian-Pilot August 17, 2000

Sub's reactors not viewed as threat to environment


WASHINGTON -- The nuclear reactors of the disabled Russian submarine on the floor of the Barents Sea are a potential -- but very unlikely -- environmental hazard, U.S. Navy and independent analysts suggested Wednesday.

``Nobody wants to dispose of a reactor in the ocean,'' said Jonathan Kiell, a spokesman for the Navy's office of nuclear propulsion. But American and presumably Russian sub reactors are built for combat, with their nuclear fuel enclosed inside heavy and rugged chambers to keep sea water out and radioactivity in, he said.

Kiell said periodic visits to the wreck sites of the U.S. subs Thresher, lost in 1963, and Scorpion, which sunk in 1968, have found only very small amounts of radioactivity in the immediate vicinity.

International monitoring of several Russian sub wrecks also has shown no sign of the release of significant levels of radiation, he said.

The reactor in a sunken sub ``slowly deteriorates into the seabed where it sits,'' Kiell said. The process may take decades or longer, and in the meantime the radioactive materials decay, steadily becoming less dangerous.

Kiell said unused nuclear fuel in the submarine would not be dangerous at any time. Spent fuel would be a hazard, but it has a short half-life and probably would be harmless by the time -- many hundreds of years from now -- that sea water would reach the interior of the reactor.

Assuming that the reactor containment mechanisms of the Kursk remain intact, the possibility of radioactive release ``is a long-term object for study rather than a near-term object of fear,'' said John Pike director of the Federation of American Scientists.

Pike said the reported flooding in the Kursk's bow makes it conceivable, but unlikely, that bulkheads elsewhere on the ship might begin to give way and that a compartment could collapse on the reactor room, causing a major breach.

The most probable outcome, he agreed, is that decades or longer will pass before sea water penetrates the reactor containment. By then, the fuel inside should be relatively harmless.

Pike cautioned that in the event of a catastrophic failure of the containment vessel, any radioactivity would move quickly into the food chain because of the relatively shallow depth of the wreck. The Kursk's position -- estimated at about 350 feet -- also would make it easier to place shielding over any exposed fuel, limiting exposure, he added.

While chances of an environmental catastrophe from the Kursk wreck appear remote, hope for its 116 sailors was waning Wednesday.

For anyone still alive, the situation inside the ship ``would be pretty grim,'' said retired Adm. Bruce Demars, a former director of the U.S. Navy's nuclear power program. By now, flashlights probably provide the only light inside the sub, Demars said, and the interior temperature is slowly dropping to match the 35-degree water temperature.

More dangerous would be the submarine's air, as toxic carbon dioxide exhaled by the sailors increases and oxygen is used up.

Retired Vice Adm. Bernard M. Kauderer, a former commander of the Atlantic submarine fleet, said the Kursk crew might be able to open valves to the ship's ballast tanks to get more oxygen. But canisters filled with chemicals to absorb the carbon dioxide would gradually lose their effectiveness.

Breathing too much carbon dioxide would first make sailors feel giddy, then trigger drowsiness, unconsciousness and death, Kauderer said.

Demars and Kauderer said the U.S. Navy doesn't give submariners any special psychological training to help them cope with such underwater emergencies.

The sailors typically ``go into this crazy business while they're very young,'' Demars said, and grow so accustomed to the dangers inherent in their work that they don't worry about a catastrophe like the Kursk accident.

Demars added that a new submariner generally finds out in the first day or two of his initial cruise whether he can handle the ship's work and living environment. Claustrophobia is ``the big separator,'' he said, and sufferers quickly are identified and transferred to other Navy jobs.

  • Reach Dale Eisman at (703) 913-9872 or at [email protected]

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