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Soviet Subs - a Neglected Nuclear Time Bomb

THE Soviet Union's collapse has provoked intense concern about the safety of Soviet nuclear weapons. Another Chernobyl accident amidst economic chaos and technological breakdown is also a worry.No attention, however, has been paid to a third nuclear danger: the accident-prone Soviet nuclear-powered submarine force. To avoid a nuclear calamity at sea, stopping Soviet nuclear submarine operations should be a major goal of Western assistance. Soviet nuclear submarines are known to have a poor safety record. In 1990, Admiral Bruce DeMars, head of the United States Navy's nuclear propulsion program, told Congress that the Soviets "have a history of major reactor plant casualties over the years. They have had real reactor accidents, things that we have nightmares about." Some Soviet nightmares are well-known. Three Soviet nuclear submarines have sunk, one each in 1970, 1986, and 1989. These accidents carried five nuclear reactors and some 38 nuclear warheads to the ocean floor. But this is only half the story. Investigations in the Soviet Union over the past year have uncovered new nightmares previously undisclosed: r Early Soviet nuclear submarines suffered from almost continuous accidents. A retired Soviet submariner said that one of the first four nuclear submarines was nicknamed "Automat." If the submarine left the base, on average it took only one day to come back because of an accident, i.e. it automatically returned. Another was dubbed "Half-Automat" because it spent two days at sea before being forced to return because of malfunctions. r In 1968, the liquid-metal reactor coolant on an early model Northern Fleet submarine froze, causing significant damage to the nuclear reactor. A senior naval officer said that many crewmen were severely irradiated and many were retired. It is believed that all or parts of the reactor were dumped off the Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya in the early 1970s. r On Aug. 10, 1985, during refuelling, the reactor on a Victor-class submarine exploded and burned in Chazma Bay, some 35 miles from Vladivostok in the Pacific. Ten men in the reactor room were killed. Soviet news accounts claim that radiation meters in the area went off the scale at fatally high levels of 600 roentgens an hour. The Soviet Navy estimates it will take 50 years for the area to return to normal. Accidents continue to beset the Soviet submarine force. Last September, a missile misfired aboard a Typhoon ballistic missile submarine in the White Sea during a training exercise. Fortunately, the submarine was able to return to base, but the accident could have sunk the submarine, along with its two nuclear reactors and nuclear-armed missiles. With economic decline, fewer resources, material, and training, the chances of accidents is likely to increase. One Vladivostok-based naval officer said, "in principle and in practice" an accident like the 1985 catastrophe could occur again. The Soviet Navy operates some 150 submarines carrying approximately 300 nuclear reactors. Soviet submarines still patrol the high seas, particularly in the Arctic and North Pacific. An accident aboard any of these submarines could release deadly radioactivity into rich fishing grounds and affect nearby nations. This is not a far-fetched scenario. The sinking of the nuclear-powered and armed Mike submarine off Norway in April 1989 has provoked widespread concern about radiation poisoning the seas in the area. As the West considers how to assist the ex-Soviet Union, dealing with Soviet nuclear submarines should be a priority. Technical help should be provided to safely defuel and dispose of these submarines. US Navy sources report that the US also is facing difficulties as to how to dispose of its own aging nuclear submarine force. Since both Navies face the problem of safely decommissioning nuclear submarines and storing their waste, a natural area of cooperation exists. If the Soviet Navy balks at proposals to reduce or retire its nuclear-powered submarine fleet, because the West would continue to keep its own nuclear-powered submarines, serious consideration should be given to abandoning nuclear-powered submarines altogether. To some, abandoning nuclear-powered submarines is a radical proposal. But with the end of the cold war, there is less need for nuclear submarines. More important, first-hand observation of the deadly legacy left by the Soviet submarine fleet suggests such a solution is necessary to avert a Soviet nuclear disaster of potential global effect.