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Russia Sub Joins Other Arctic Debris

August 28, 2000

TORONTO (AP) _ Twisted and broken, hundreds of feet down in the Barents Sea, the Russian submarine Kursk joins other nuclear debris sunken or discarded in Arctic waters.

Scientists who study radioactivity in the Arctic say a variety of sources have been responsible for contamination throughout the region in the past 50 years.

Except for isolated sites _ such as the former Soviet underwater nuclear testing ground used in the late 1950s _ scientists say contamination levels are low, posing little threat to people.

``We don’t see pervasive contamination at levels that would be of significant radiological concern,″ said John Norton Smith, a Canadian government research scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia.

A 1998 report by the Arctic Monitoring Assessment Program lists several sources of radioactive contamination in the Arctic, including the accidental sinking of a Soviet submarine and a U.S. B-52 bomber that crashed in 1968.

Three decades of Soviet dumping of nuclear waste, including more than 15 reactors from decommissioned ships, and waste from nuclear power and weapons plants in Russia and Europe add to radioactive material in Arctic seas, according to Smith and the AMAP report.

Despite this, whatever radioactive material that has escaped has shown little sign of spreading far before its potency dissipates.

The Kursk, which suffered two explosions and sank on Aug. 12, killing 118 sailors aboard, has two nuclear reactors that Russian officials say shut down when it became disabled. Russia is negotiating with Norwegian and Dutch companies to raise the submarine. Russian officials say there is no sign of unusual radiation levels around the vessel.

Smith, who studies radioactivity in Arctic waters, said the Kursk reactors would be safe in the short term if they remained intact.

``The only problem would be if any of the containment structures ruptured,″ he said. The threat of leakage increases with time, though, because the reactors on the Kursk never were intended to sit forever on the bottom of the ocean, Smith added.

The AMAP report said the only other known case of a sunken active nuclear submarine _ the April 7, 1989, fire aboard the Komsomolets near Bear Island in the Norwegian Sea _ caused little known contamination beyond the vessel. The submarine had a nuclear reactor and two torpedoes with mixed uranium-plutonium warheads, the report said, and small amounts of radioactive material leaked out of the reactor where the vessel lies, more than a mile deep.

``The likelihood of a large-scale release from the Komsomolets is small,″ the report said. ``Even if the containment material corrodes with time, most of the activation products will have decayed before they are released. Studies in the surrounding area show only minor contamination from the submarine.″

AMAP, which is run by the eight-nation Arctic Council comprising Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, tracks the condition of the Arctic environment.

Its 1998 report said the existing contamination appeared to pose little health risk to people _ either through direct exposure or in the food chain through fish and other marine life.

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