Sunken nuclear sub allegedly leaking radioactivity

This screenshot from the underwater video of the sunken November class submarineshows that K-159 is in a rather bad condistion.

A unique underwater film shows cod swimming around of the severely damaged K-159 submarine that sank in the Barents Sea ten years ago.


The underwater film shows several large holes in the outer hull of the submarine laying on the seabed just northeast of the outlet of the Kola bay. This is one of the most important fishing grounds for cod in the Barents Sea. Given to the French-German TV channel ARTE, the film is the first made publicly available of K-159 after it sank on August 30, 2003. 

A Moscow-based anonymous military informant provided the film to the reporters saying it was recorded during the Russian-British expedition to the sunken submarine back in 2007. The source further claims worrying increased levels of radioactivity are measured leaking from the hull of the wreaked submarine. Nothing is said about the levels of radioactivity. 

The film shows a large hole in the bow of the submarine; open door to the sail; cables are visible through holes and the submarines outer hull is very rusty. The film also shows how an ROW takes measurements of radioactivity through the air-pressure holes on the deck of K-159. A lot of fish is swimming around the wreaked submarine. The Barents Sea is one of the most productive marine biological oceans in the world.

The two reactors onboard hold some 800 kilos of spent uranium fuel, estimated to count for some 20 petabecquerels of radioactivity.

You can see the French-German ARTE channel documentary film here with the underwater video at 1:07.

Norwegian radiation protection authorities (NRPA) consider K-159 to represent the biggest potential source of radioactive releases in the Arctic waters.

“Based on the information we have it is only measured levels within background variations in the near vicinity of the submarine,” says Ingar Amundsen, head of section for international nuclear safety with the NRPA

The Norwegian expert is aware of the expedition that made measurements in the area in 2007. “The main focus was to study the condition of the submarine and possibilities to lift it,” says Amundsen. He assures that the Russians say the submarine is in “satisfactory condition”, meaning there is no urgent threat of leakages. 

“However, K-159 represents the biggest potential for emission, considering the levels of radioactivity in the reactors, compared with other dumped or sunken objects in the Kara Sea with spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste,” says Ingar Amundsen to BarentsObserver after being shown the underwater video.

Nils Bøhmer is nuclear physicist with the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group that for two decades have been studying nuclear safety issues in northwest-Russia. Bøhmer says to BarentsObserver that he wants to see K-159 lifted from the seabed.

“If the information about leakages of radioactivity from K-159 is correct, it is of most importance that this information is made publicly available. It must be prepared a risk assessment plan for possible lifting of K-159. Russian authorities must also find financial means to an eventual lifting,” says Nils Bøhmer.

Commissioned in 1963, the K-159 was one of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear powered submarines. After a operation period with several accidents involving the reactors, she was finally taken out of operation in 1989 and was laid-up at the remote located naval base of Gremikha.

Rusting at pier for 14 years, K-159 was in late August 2003 finally put on tow towards the naval yard Shkval in Polyarny. The submarine never made it to the yard. In stormy weather, one of the pontoons keeping the submarine afloat was ripped away and a few hours later K-159 sank to the seabed 238 meters down.   

Nine of the ten sailors onboard died. 

Read more BarentsObserver articles about nuclear safety.