Russia's once-feared Northern Fleet lies rusting and radioactive

The pride of the Soviet navy is a shell of its former self, reports Jason Burke

For 50 years the Northern Fleet was the pride of the USSR. From secret ports along Russia's Arctic coast, the iron ships ruled the steel-grey waves with a mailed fist. Beneath the waters, a formidable submarine fleet, diesel and then nuclear powered, chased intruding Americans away. Now the fleet is a shadow of its former self. It poses a greater threat to the environment than the West.

Once, the Soviet armed forces had an annual budget of £120 billion. Now it is a fraction of that, some say as little as £3bn.

The navy receives far less than the army and huge resources have been channelled into the war with Chechnya.

Much of the Northern Fleet is inoperable, and 88 of its submarines - about two-thirds of the total - have been decommissioned. At least 52 of these still contain their nuclear fuel.

All over the north of Russia their long steel hulls lie rusting at docksides. Elsewhere, huge piles of radio-active waste lie stored with minimum maintenance. All the purpose-built radioactive waste storage facilities are full, so a substantial amount is stored, unprotected, in the open.

At one base - Zapadnaya Litsa, only 25 miles from the Norwegian border - the equivalent of 90 nuclear re-actors is stored. Stockpiles have leaked in recent years.

'The whole navy is an accident waiting to happen,' said Peter Huchthausen, a former US intelligence officer.

And there have been accidents before. The Russian newspaper, Izvestia, recently reported that 507 crew members have died during the 40 years that the Russians have used nuclear-powered submarines.

It was the Americans who first launched a nuclear sub in the mid-Fifties.

The first major accident came in 1961 when a reactor on a Russian sub began to overheat. With its fuel rods at 1,000 degrees Celsius, nine men volunteered to go into the reactor compartment and shut it down. They all received 100 times the safe dose of radiation and died shortly afterwards.

In 1970, a November-class attack submarine sank in rough seas in the Bay of Biscay, and in 1986 a third Russian sub was scuttled after a fire.

Three years later the Komsomolets sank in the Barents Sea to a depth of more than 6,000ft. The accident was kept secret until the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The Cold War claimed its casualties in the West, too. The USS Thresher went down off the coast of New England in 1963 with 129 men on board. The USS Scorpion sank a few years later off the Azores.

Unlike the Kursk - which lies a mere 385ft down - all the others lie thousands of feet below the surface.

The Thresher is at a depth of 16,000ft. Only in one instance is there thought to have been a serious radiation leak, but the sub was so deep that, although the sea floor is thought to be contaminated, experts believe that marine life is unaffected.

However, the case of the Kursk is very different. Scientists believe that, if the nuclear reactors were not properly shut down, then there is a real chance of a meltdown.

The super-heated reactors would then burn their way through the bottom of the sub, releasing molten fuel on to the seabed.

Mils Bohmer, a Russian nuclear physicist, said that this would release fission products such as plutonium, caesium and uranium into the Barents Sea's fertile fishing ground.

So far, tests of water and air samples gathered by Norwegian vessels near the Kursk and analysed by the Norwegian Nuclear Protection Authority have not shown any abnormal levels of radiation.

In many ways the bottom of the sea - particularly an isolated and cold sea such as the Barents - can be seen as the best place for damaged nuclear equipment to be dumped.

But a dockside in a northern Russian port can only be one of the worst.


Jason Burke

The GuardianTramp

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