It’s April 1989 and state-of-the-art Soviet nuclear sub Komsomolets has been carrying out its duties underwater for more than a month. She’s cruising at a depth of 1,250 feet in the Barents Sea, some 200 miles north of Norway. But all is far from well. And the events that unfold on that spring day will leave a terrifying legacy of highly toxic radioactive material on the seabed.
The Komsomolets – which translates as “member of the Young Communist League” – was built in a shipyard in Severodvinsk and made her maiden voyage in 1983. This city in Russia’s north-west is located on the White Sea, which in turn borders the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea. Because of its naval ship-building industry, though, to this day Severodvinsk remains largely closed to foreigners.
At the time of the Komsomolets’ launch, of course, the Cold War was still being waged. This bitter rivalry between the communist Soviet Union and its supporters on one side and the Western powers led by the U.S. on the other had by that point been rumbling on for almost four decades. And the Komsomolets nuclear submarine was part of the arms race that the two blocs pursued.