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Breaking News

Russian Sub Evacuation Reported Underway

Aired August 15, 2000 - 8:41 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Russian navy officials report a renewed attempt to rescue 116 trapped submariners is under way in the Barents Sea. While technology and experience have improved the safety of submarines, this is a nuclear powered-sub, capable of carrying nuclear missiles.

Science correspondent Ann Kellan takes a look at environmental risks associated with nuclear subs.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANN KELLAN, CNN SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Any modern navy that launches nuclear powered submarines puts the environment at risk of radioactive contamination. In the '60s, two U.S. Navy nuclear powered subs sank. The USS Thresher went down off the Massachusetts coast and broke into six pieces, but the Navy says the nuclear reactor compartment remains intact. The USS Scorpion mysteriously went down near the Azores in 1968, broke in two, and, to date, no radiation leaks have been detected.

These two subs now sit at the bottom of the ocean, along with a number of subs from the former Soviet Union. In 1970, a fire on board sank the nuclear powered sub K-8. In 1981, the K-27, disabled from an 18-year-old on board nuclear accident, was intentionally sunk off the northern coast of Russia.

In 1986, the Soviet's K-219 went down just east of Bermuda after an explosion in a loaded missile tube with two nuclear reactors and 16 nuclear missiles on board. Given Soviet press controls, we don't know if radioactive materials leaked in any of these incidents.

In the only case where we know plutonium leaked, in 1989, the Soviet Navy sub Komsomolets sunk in the Norwegian Sea just 100 miles from Bear Island. Lethal plutonium from two damaged torpedo casings contaminated ocean waters, until the Russians sealed the hull in 1996, which should hold it for 20 years. If they leak, the radiation would likely kill sea life nearby, and some of that fuel stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KELLAN: Keep in mind, enriched uranium is the radioactive fuel used to power nuclear subs; plutonium is used in weapon production. Now, back in 1991. Russia signed a treaty with the U.S. agreeing to remove nuclear weapons from these subs, and that reduces the amount of radioactive materials onboard.

HARRIS: Now, listen, folks may not know this, but while the tap was running, we were chatting about this. Let me ask you about this, for their benefit. This ship being in the position it is right now, in the Barents Sea, how does the water and the temperature underneath the water there, present any extra challenge for them.

KELLAN: Well, if there is rescue effort under way, the water right now -- around now is about zero degrees Celsius, around freezing Fahrenheit, that is freezing, fresh water freezing. So it is very cold. So any efforts to rescue anybody by having them come out into the water, they would definitely, not only risk the bends, just to come up, but also the exposure of the cold water, that could also hamper operations for rescue.

HARRIS: Any other major concerns?

KELLAN: Well, you have to worry about the current. If there is any radioactive leak going on there right now, the water current can make that radiation travel for miles. That is also another concern right now.

HARRIS: That just makes it trickier.

KELLAN: It is very tricky.

HARRIS: Thanks much, Ann Kellan, appreciate it.

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