The Kursk Was in Dangerous Company

James Clay Moltz
August 30, 2000

An Op-Ed for the New York Times, August 29, 2000.

MONTEREY, Calif. — Russia and its navy are justifiably facing criticism for the handling of the Kursk submarine disaster. But simply focusing on the problems in Russia misses a central point: the inherent costs and risks of all nuclear submarines.

Earlier this month, the United States Navy uncovered faulty welding in its newest Seawolf vessel, meaning that this already far over-budget submarine must now be returned to the manufacturer for repairs. It is also requesting more funds for other new submarines. Yet at the same time, news surfaced about the Navy’s plans to mothball one of its two rescue submarines for budget reasons.

Since nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons first went to sea in the 1950’s, submarine accidents have killed more than 700 sailors from the United States and the Soviet Union (and now, Russia) alone. The United States lost two nuclear submarines and their crews in the 1960’s. It has also been involved in as many as a dozen nuclear submarine collisions with Soviet and Russian vessels. As recently as March 1998, two American nuclear submarines collided in an exercise off the coast of Long Island.

Russia’s record is far worse. Besides the Kursk, Russia has lost four submarines with either nuclear weapons or reactors aboard (in 1968, 1970, 1986 and 1989). Fires, collisions with military and civilian vessels and dangerous reactor incidents both at sea and during refueling operations at dock have caused numerous preventable deaths.

Now Brazil is moving forward with plans to develop its first nuclear attack submarine. India is cooperating with Russia in developing a submarine reactor, while Pakistan is sending feelers to France about expanding its purchases of conventional Agosta-class submarines, which could be fitted with nuclear weapons. China, with Russian help, is seeking to expand its small nuclear fleet.

These nations continue to believe that nuclear submarines offer security and prestige. Yet, as the Russian case indicates, developing nuclear submarines involves significant long-term costs. These include expenses for managing spent fuel, eliminating liquid radioactive waste and disposing of used reactor compartments. Russia has already caused serious damage to the environment near many of its navy ports and will eventually spend several billion dollars on the clean-up, decommissioning and dismantling of its nuclear fleet.

Yet despite the serious environmental and safety threats posed by nuclear submarines, there is currently no international effort to ban their spread. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty includes no clause prohibiting the sale of either nuclear submarines or the highly enriched uranium fuel they run on.

An important first step toward preventing a future catastrophe at sea would be for the current nuclear submarine-producing states to agree to a ban on their sale or transfer, along with similar bans regarding propulsion technology. Such self-restraint would raise the cost of building nuclear submarines and act as a deterrent.

A second step would be for the nuclear navies of the world to discuss a “rules of the road” agreement to facilitate the exchange of information in the case of future accidents. Such an accord would help prevent submarine collisions from leading to inadvertent war and accidents from causing avoidable deaths.

A final step would be to include the enriched uranium fuel used in submarines in negotiations toward a global treaty to ban the production of fissile materials. Existing proposals make no mention of the submarine fuel.

The Kursk incident should spur changes in Russia’s nuclear navy. But this will not alleviate the international dangers caused by submarine collisions, accidents and transfers of technology. New global initiatives are needed to improve the safety of the seas.

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