Nuclear sub fire sparks concerns

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A fire on board a Russian nuclear submarine in Murmansk last week has sparked concerns from Norwegian environmental activists and pollution authorities. They claim the Russians failed to issue warnings about possible nuclear contamination.

“The Russians should have alerted Norwegian authorities about the fire,” Nils Bøhmer, a nuclear physicist at the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona, told newspaper Aftenposten. He urged Norway’s Foreign Ministry to complain to their counterparts in Russia.

Reciprocal warning system in question
Russian and Norwegian authorities agreed in the early 1990s to warn each other about possible radioactive emissions. To date, however, Russia has never issued any warnings and none came last week either, even after TV footage showed flames and smoke from the fire on board the nuclear submarine Jekaterinaburg. The submarine, built in 1984, was berthed at Murmansk when the fire broke out on Thursday.

Russian authorities were quick to issue assurances that radioactivity in the area was normal after news of the fire broke, and they claimed there was no danger the fire would reach the submarine’s nuclear reactor. Submarine crew members were evacuated, they said, and there were no injuries, but that report was later revised. By Saturday, Russian authorities reported that crew members were still on board and at least nine were injured.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that area residents were not convinced there was no danger of radioactive fallout, and some had demanded to be evacuated.

Details unclear
Bellona remained unclear about the details of the fire, said to have started during repairs to the sub. Bellona officials feared the fire could have spread. “The fact that Russian authorities say there’s no danger of nuclear leaks doesn’t necessarily reassure us,”Bøhmer told news bureau NTB. He was also in contact with state meteorologists, who warned of unfavourable winds.

The fire was later said to have been “completely extinguished,” 20 hours after it started. Norwegian authorities reported no indication of nuclear emissions by the weekend, but government officials were nonetheless concerned and raising questions.

“There’s no doubt that we would have preferred that Norway was warned about the accident,” State Secreatary Erik Lahnstein in the Foreign Ministry told NTB.

Political follow-up
Lahnstein stressed that issues regarding compliance with the warning agreement have been under evaluation by a Norwegian-Russian commission, as recently as September.

“Now we have to determine how this matter will be followed up at the political level,” Lahnstein told NTB.

Gunnar Kjønnøy, county administrator for Finnmark, the northern Norwegian county that borders Russia and is closest to Murmansk, was concerned as well. He claimed the Russians had violated a regional obligation they have to warn of nuclear accidents.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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