Russian Nuclear Sub ‘Tomsk’ Burns in Dry dock, 2013, Echoes Tomsk Nuclear Waste Explosion, 1993
by John LaForge
A nuclear-powered Russian submarine with two propulsion reactors onboard burned for five hours last September after sparks, reportedly from an improperly operated welding torch, set the blaze. The submarine Tomsk was being repaired near Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry, which said after the blaze was extinguished Sept. 16 that radiation levels were “normal.” The ministry also declared that no one was injured in the fire, but federal investigators later reported that 15 “servicemen” had been hospitalized. When thick black smoke filled the boat and billowed from the area, the crew evacuated. The blaze started between the Tomsk’s two hulls, burning paint, cables 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.
The Serbian Times noted that, “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 it 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 Northeast coast.
The Tomsk has been under repair since 2009, “due to the breakdown of 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. The French news agency Agence France Presse, quoting the Russian Information Agency, reported that “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 giant a ballistic missile submarine, like US Trident subs, and carried dozens of nuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles.
Fiery Precedents and Radioactive Irony
The Norwegian news service Bellona noted that the blaze inside the Tomsk was the fourth Russian submarine fire since 2006 and the sixth major incident aboard a Russian submarine since the catastrophic sinking of the Kursk in 2000.
Fire broke out on Russian nuclear submarine Yekaterinburg in Murmansk in December 2011, and 19 people were injured. At the time, the shipyard in northwestern Russia announced that no weapons were onboard. But infestations by Belonna raised questions about the claim that weapons had been removed before maintenance. Eventually, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin confirmed that weapons were aboard the Yekaterinburg during the fire.
The name “Tomsk” may have rung a bell because of a far more devastating accident of the same name.
On April 6, 1993, in the Siberian city of Tomsk-7, a tank of radioactive waste exploded and burned sending a cloud of radiation across the country in what Russian authorities said was the worst disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. The tank was part of a plutonium separation factory — like waste tanks at the Hanford site in the Washington State and at Savannah River in South Carolina — where highly radioactive reactor fuel had plutonium chemically stripped out for use in H-bombs. After first denying that plutonium has been in the tank, Russian officials belatedly acknowledged that both uranium and plutonium salts were dispersed by the explosion.
The underground tank held about 20 cubic meters of liquid wastes, and while a plume it drifted away from the city of Tomsk with half a million residents, radioactive fallout 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 then that several firefighters were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, while Georgy Kaurov, head of NEM’s information department, said only one had received a high dose. The Russian State Committee on Emergencies reportedly put 500 civil defense to work digging up contaminated snow and soil for burial somewhere else.
If only there was such a place.
— John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, edits its quarterly newsletter, and writes for PeaceVoice.