B. Priebe of Milwaukee, Wis., asks, 'Whatever happened to ...?' That Sunken Soviet Nuclear Sub

First there was Titanic, then Komsomolets. Built of super-strong titanium and powered by advanced nuclear reactors that drove it to unprecedented speeds, the Soviet submarine seemed destined to set new standards in naval achievement. But on April 7, 1989, a fire that began in the stern engulfed the sub. The vessel sank to the bottom of the Norwegian Sea, with the loss of 42 crewmen.

After years of conflicting reports, global concern came to focus on the potentially disastrous effects of plutonium leaking into the ocean from the sub's reactors and nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Even a small amount of plutonium could catastrophically damage the environment, not to mention Norway's fisheries. In the summers of 1994 and 1995, the most vulnerable area of the sub - its torpedo tubes - were sealed. That ended the danger temporarily.

Recently, scientists have again expressed concern about the long-term future of the sub. If radioactive matter contaminates plankton, at the bottom of the ocean's food chain, it could spread to other sea life. The radioactivity could last for centuries.

Proposed solutions include raising the sub or, preferably, sealing it more securely in its current location.

Russian naval submarine officer Aleksandr Nikitin is now on trial for treason and espionage. He released information about the Komsomolets and other sunken Soviet subs to the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group.

If you wonder 'Whatever happened to...' write us at: One Norway Street,

Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail: whatever@csmonitor.com

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