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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rusty and Radioactive: A Danger to the World

On Aug. 30, the K-159, a November-class nuclear submarine, sank during bad weather in the Barents Sea, taking with it nine sailors. The K-159, which had been decommissioned in 1989, broke loose as it was being towed to the Nerpa dismantling site near Murmansk.

Unfortunately, the K-159 accident is symptomatic of a larger malaise plaguing the navy. More than 30 of Russia's first-generation nuclear submarines are deteriorating, with the most typical problems including hull leaks and the failure of safety systems. Submarine conditions are only part of the problem, however. None of the 192 submarines that Russia has decommissioned have been completely dismantled; Russia lacks places to put the vessels' spent fuel and irradiated scrap. As a temporary measure, more than 80 nuclear reactor compartments are encased in storage containers at sea that have to be inspected and repaired periodically so they stay afloat.

Furthermore, at least 40 decommissioned nuclear vessels of other kinds are anchored off Russian bases, while two subs with nuclear reactors that were damaged in accidents and require special treatment are still docked at a base near Vladivostok.

This burdensome nuclear legacy of the Cold War poses a potential threat not only to Russia but also to its neighbors. The K-159 accident was, unfortunately, not the first such accident involving a decommissioned Russian nuclear sub; a similar mishap occurred in 1997 off the Kamchatka Peninsula, thankfully without the loss of life.

By itself, the sinking of the K-159 is not likely to cause an environmental disaster. Though its reactors contain spent fuel, the protective barriers and safety features of the submarine should prevent the escape of any measurable amount of radioactivity. But this accident is a clear signal to Russia and the international community to hasten dismantling and to ensure the security of the Russian navy.

In recent years, Russia has undertaken a major effort, financed by the United States and other countries, to expedite the decommissioning of naval vessels and to secure radioactive materiel. Yet there is not enough manpower and resources to do so at the required pace.

Without further involvement by the international community, efforts to eliminate the dangers may take a long time. And while there is significant international cooperation in this area, the scope of these efforts has yet to match the magnitude of the problem. Eliminating threats from nuclear and radioactive materials should be a priority for both Russia and the international community -- one made all the more urgent because of the intensifying activities of terrorists and their quest for WMD.

Ashot Sarkissov, a retired vice admiral in the Russian navy, contributed this comment to The New York Times.