Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2013-2014
By John LaForge
A nuclear-powered Russian submarine with two propulsion reactors burned for five hours after sparks, reportedly from an improperly operated welding torch, set the blaze. The Tomsk was being repaired near Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry, which said Sept. 16 that radiation levels were “normal.” Two days after the ministry declared that no one was injured in the fire, federal investigators reported that 15 “servicemen” had been hospitalized.
When thick black smoke filled the boat and billowed from the area, the crew was evacuated. The blaze started between the Tomsk’s two hulls, burning paint and insulation, and was put out using foam, according to various reports quoting the state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation. Reuters said further that a rubber seal and cables were also burned.
The Tomsk had reportedly been in dry dock undergoing repairs at the Zvezda shipyard in Bolshoi Kamen on the Sea of Japan for years. The Defense Ministry said the sub had all its weapons removed, and that its two propulsion reactors were in cold shutdown.
(Fire broke out on the Russian nuclear submarine Yekaterinburg in Murmansk in December 2011 and nine people were injured. At the time, the shipyard in northwestern Russia announced that no weapons were onboard, but later reports said long-range missiles were still inside.)
With the recent fire, the Serbian Times noted, “The incident was clearly alarming since the region has a large population and is in proximity of Japan, China and North Korea.” The paper said the Tomsk is regularly armed with Cruise missiles, mines and torpedoes.
With highly radioactive reactor fuel and coolant on board, the fire and its duration raised concerns about airborne and Pacific Ocean contamination being added to that already spewing from the triple reactor meltdowns at Fukushima on Japan’s northeastern coast.
The Tomsk has been under repair since 2009, “due to the breakdown of a cooling plant at one of the reactors” as the Serbian Times put it, or “due to problems with the cooling engine” according to the Qatar News Agency.
Agence France Presse, quoting the Russian Information Agency reported, “Radiation in the area of the emergency incident onboard the Tomsk is normal.”
Reports of the size and function of the Tomsk differed significantly. The New York Times said Tomsk, “is an attack submarine and, as such, would not carry strategic nuclear warheads.” But a widely-circulated Associated Press report said, “Tomsk is of the same class as the nuclear submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000 in the Barents Sea after an explosion, killing all 118 people aboard.” The Kursk was a giant ballistic missile submarine, like the US Trident submarines, and carried dozens of nuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles.
The name “Tomsk” may have rung a bell. On April 6, 1993, a tank of radioactive waste exploded and burned in the Siberian city of Tomsk-7, sending a cloud of radiation across the country in what Russia said was the worst disaster since Chernobyl. The tank was part of a plutonium separation factory — like the Hanford site in Washington State — where plutonium for H-bombs is chemically stripped from highly radioactive used reactor fuel. Russian officials reportedly said that both uranium and plutonium salts were dispersed by the explosion.
The underground tank that exploded held about 20 cubic meters of liquid wastes, and the plume of radiation, while it drifted away from the city of Tomsk with half a million residents, contaminated 2,500 acres and risked dousing 11 Siberian towns, each with several thousand people. The explosion was so severe, Greenpeace Moscow said at the time, that it blew off a concrete slab covering the tank and “released all of the radioactive materials to the atmosphere.”
Nuclear Energy Ministry spokesman Vitaly Nasonov told the press that several firefighters were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, while Georgy Kaurov, head of its information department said only one had received a high dose.
The Russian State Committee on Emergencies reportedly had 500 civil defense workers dig up contaminated snow and soil for burial somewhere else.— NBC News, Sept. 18; Qatar Times, Serbian Times, Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Itar-Tass, RIA Novosti, New York Times, and Reuters, Sept. 16, 2013