Radiation Levels of Sunken Russian Nuclear Submarine 100,000 Times Higher Than Normal

Radiation levels in the water around a sunken Soviet-era nuclear submarine are some 100,000 times higher than normal, scientists have warned, raising fears that the K-278 Komsomolets may still pose a threat 30 years after it sunk.

Norwegian scientists have been analyzing the area around the submarine, which came to rest on the floor of the Norwegian Sea after sinking on April 7, 1989. The accident—caused by a fire in the engine room—resulted in the deaths of 42 of the Komsomolets' 69 crew. Most were killed by radiation exposure while waiting for the Soviet navy to rescue them.

The 400 feet long submarine now sits one mile underwater, around 100 miles southwest of Norway's Bear Island, in one of the largest fishing grounds on Earth.

Research teams regularly check on the status of the wreck. Russian scientists detected low levels of radiation in the water around the Komsomolets in the 1990s and 2007, the Moscow Times reported.

Norwegian teams survey the site every year, and noted elevated concentrations of radioactive cesium-137 nearby between 1991 and 1993, Business Insider noted. However, no leaks have ever been found.

But of three samples taken Monday using a remote-controlled mini-submarine, one shows radiation levels 100,000 times higher than expected, Norwegian state broadcaster NRK reported.

The reading was taken close to a ventilation hole, around which scientists have previously observed a strange cloud of dust. Researchers told the TV2 news channel they suspect the ventilation channel is in direct contact with the nuclear reactor inside the submarine, and that radiation is pulsing through it out into the sea.

NRK explained that the scientists are using the Ægir 6000 mini-sub used in this round of tests, which is expected to give more accurate readings than older equipment.

Hilde Elise Heldal of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research said she was not overly surprised that radiation was picked up, given past tests that have also recorded radioactive pollution. "The results are preliminary," she told TV2. "We will examine the samples thoroughly when we get home."

Heldal added that the radiation poses no threat to nearby fishing or scientific activities, and noted that continued monitoring is important "so that we have updated knowledge about the pollution situation in the area around the wreck." This will also help "to ensure consumer confidence in the Norwegian fishing industry," she added.

The Barents Observer noted that the chance of food chain contamination is low because the submarine is so deep underwater, at a depth very few animals operate at.

Russian, submarine, radiation, Norway, sunken
This undated file photo shows taken in St. Petersburg shows the nuclear-powered Komsomolets submarine which sank in the Norwegian Sea on April 7, 1989. STF/AFP/Getty