April 10, 1989
By Jonathan C. Randal
Washington Past Foreign Service
OSLO, April 9—The Soviet news agency Tass said today that 42 sailors were killed when their nuclearpowered attack submarine sank off the coast of Norway on Friday. The agency also reported that the sub had on board two nuclear warheads, but Norwegian government scientists said the damaged vessel emitted "no radioactive leakage" as it sank.
The Tass report said the nuclear warheads were designed to withstand enormous amounts of underwater pressure and posed no danger of leakage. The news agency confirmed that the sub's 69-member crew had fought a fire for 5 1/2 hours but failed to put it out despite the help of naval planes.
Despite reassuring preliminary results from samples of air and surface water collected at the scene Norwegian authorities said they would be sending a fisheries vessel on Monday to take water specimens from the ocean bed and will continue to monitor the area for years.
The Mike-class attack submarine's scattered remains are lying in an estimated 4,500 feet of water about 312 miles west of Norway's remote northwest coast and 118 miles southwest of its weather station on Bear Island.
Anne Avlik, who chairs the governmental action committee for peacetime nuclear accidents, told a news conference before the Tass report that if nuclear weapons were aboard the stricken submarine, "experts tell us there is very little danger of radioactive leakage" because of "lots and lots of security systems." She did not elaborate.
Johan Baarli, chairman of the National Institute of Radiation Hygiene that conducted the examination, told reporters sea water would only slowly eat through submerged nuclear weapons' metal casings.
"The chances of radiation contamination are very, very small indeed" because even if corroded through, the weapons would produce a "very small release of alpha-particle radiation [anal present little danger," he added.
"You have to be very close to alpha particles for them to be dangerous," he said, "and they and the reactors are sheltered by enormous amounts of water."
Echoing that view was British Capt. Richard Sharpe, editor of the authoritative Jane's Fighting Ships. In a telephone interview, he said he was convinced the Soviets, realizing the fire was out of control, scuttled the ship.
"That submarine is safe as a house on the ocean floor," he said. "It sits there and slowly rots. After all, the first thing you do to cool down a nuclear reactor is to stick it in a bloody great tank of water."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Knut Almestad made clear Norwegian officials were piqued by Soviet failure to inform them promptly, although he said the government regarded the loss of the submarine in international waters as a "tragic accident at sea and not a diplomatic incident."
When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev formally informed Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland about the incident, telling her that the submarine's nuclear reactors had been disarmed, the message was delivered about 5 a.m. Saturday.
That was about 18 hours after the fire broke out and more than an hour after the British government received a similar message.
Oslo and Moscow were in "frequent diplomatic contact," the spokesman said, adding that the Soviets had provided "accurate but scant" information. Norwegian scientists would like to question the Soviets, he said, about "dangers of radioactive pollution," not, "of course, out of idle curiosity" about "Soviet secrets."
In keeping with agreements concluded after the Soviet nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl in 1986, Almestad said the results of the preliminary analyses had been sent to the Soviet Union, Britain, Sweden, Finland, East and West Germany and other countries.
Summing up the scientists' conclusions, Avlik of the governmental accident committee said each kilogram of analyzed water contacted less than 0.1 Becquerel, the scientific yardstick for measuring radiation, a level described as insignificant.
Correspondent David Remnick in Moscow contributed to this report.