Russian submarine accident: Was there really no radiation contamination?


Twenty people aboard a Russian nuclear-powered submarine that was operating in the Sea of Japan were killed in an accident on November 8. The Russian government has said there was no radiation contamination, but at the very least they should provide enough information to put our minds at ease.

The submarine is not believed to be the type that carries missiles with nuclear warheads and was reportedly conducting sea trials. The victims evidently died from a lack of oxygen or lethal toxicity after inhaling Freon gas that was emitted when firefighting equipment malfunctioned. The possibility of human error has been raised.

The Russian government has said there was no damage to the submarine itself, that the nuclear reactors were operating normally and that no radiation was leaked. The submarine returned to the Pacific fleet base outside Vladivostok under its own power.

Since the Soviet era, accidents aboard nuclear submarines have often been covered up on the pretext of military secrecy. For that reason, we applaud the government for its prompt disclosure of this incident.

But the extent of the damage and the location of the accident have not been officially disclosed. Regardless of how strenuously the government emphasizes that there was no radiation leak, this will not be enough to allay concern.

Was a radiological investigation carried out? If so, what were the results? These kinds of questions have not been answered. It is only natural that the Japanese government demanded full disclosure.

This accident reveals the situation within Russia as well as the global military situation.

Construction of the submarine involved in this incident began in 1991 but was halted because of financial difficulties. It was reportedly completed only recently. This is probably in line with Russia’s strategy to restore its military might.

But although military spending has increased with Russia’s economic recovery, the decline in morale among the country’s troops, many of whom have not been paid for months, remains a serious problem. The possibility of a serious human error cannot be denied.

This incident again highlighted the fact that nuclear submarines are sailing the seas. There are more than 140 nuclear-powered submarines in the world, including those belonging to the U.S. and Russia.

If there is an explosion or damage to a reactor aboard one of these “moving nuclear power plants,” there is the risk of major radiation contamination of the environment, including the ocean. In the nuclear submarine accident that occurred near Vladivostok in 1985, 350 people who were involved in the effort to put out the fire were reportedly exposed to radiation and more than 40 people died.

In Japan as well, it has recently been revealed that a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarine that called at Sasebo and other ports leaked trace amounts of radiation over a two-year period. Chinese nuclear submarines have also been active in the surrounding seas.

There is concern about the possibility of a “new Cold War” between Russia and the West. Along with nuclear disarmament, we would like to see nations reduce their conventional weapons, including nuclear submarines that do not carry nuclear missiles.

(Originally published on November 11, 2008)

Related articles
20 die, 21 injured in Russian nuclear sub accident (Nov. 10, 2008)