A threat after sixty years
Some news from Norway. The consequences of a war live long past when the final shot is fired.
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OSLO, NORWAY - More than 60 years after being torpedoed by the British navy, a Nazi submarine built to threaten Allied ships continues to spread fear off the coast of Norway.
The rusting wreckage of the U-864, sunk in a desperate mission to supply Japan with advanced weapons technology, now poses a major environmental threat from its poisonous cargo: 70 tons of mercury.
Residents on the tiny island of Fedje, in the North Sea on roughly the same latitude as Scotland's Shetland Islands, want the sub removed. But authorities fear a salvage operation could result in a catastrophic spill, and suggest entombing the wreck in the seabed with rocks, cement and sand.
"Local people are very concerned," Fedje's Mayor Erling Walderhaug said. "They wanted it taken away so the danger would be gone for good."
The U-864 tried to skirt Allied navy patrols on a last-ditch secret mission, code-named "Caesar," to take jet engine parts, missile guidance systems and mercury for weapons production to Germany's ally, Japan. British experts discovered the mission by breaking a German code.
In a rare underwater duel, the British submarine HMS Venturer stalked the U-864 for three hours before the Venturer sank the U-864 on Feb. 9, 1945, about 2 1/2 miles off Fedje.
The German submarine was only 14 months old when it went down with a crew of 73 in 500 feet of water.
The wreck lay undisturbed for almost 60 years until Norway's Royal Navy discovered it in March 2003. Oslo's newspaper Dagbladet has called it "Hitler's secret poison bomb."
The mercury containers are rusting, and some are leaking. Studies showed elevated mercury levels in the silt around the wreck, but so far only fish that live inside have been contaminated, according to the Norwegian Food Protection Authority. Fishing is not allowed in the waters nearby.
After spending three years and about $6.5 million researching the problem, the Norwegian Coastal Administration recommended encasing the submarine with sand to prevent the spread of mercury. The method, it said in a report released Tuesday, had worked 30 times worldwide and was said to be less risky than attempting to lift the 2,400-ton sub.
"Encasing and covering are seen as permanent environmental measures," said Gunnar Gjellan, who leads the government's U-864 project. "The coastal administration recommends that the parts of the wreck be covered with a type of sand as an absorption material and an armoring layer on top to prevent corrosion."
The Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs said it will review the report before making a final decision.
For the people of Fedje, near Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, leaving the wreck where it lies means the sub's toxic cargo will continue to threaten their port - possibly for generations.
When released into the ocean, metallic mercury, the silver fluid once used in thermometers, can become more dangerous organic mercury. Through fish, organic mercury can be passed on to humans in food. Mercury poisoning can be fatal.
Even small amounts can damage the nervous system, as well as cause heart and kidney problems.
The Norwegian environmental group Bellona has asked that the sub be removed, but Bellona's Marius Dalen, who has followed the project from the start, said the group would review the report.
"We wanted to see it raised to be sure that it does not become an environmental risk over time," Dalen said.
There is concern, he said, that the torpedoes aboard might explode if an attempt is made to raise the vessel. Experts also are worried about the condition of the U-864's keel, where the mercury bottles were stored.
"We would not want to have something happen halfway through the lifting operation that would spread mercury," Dalen said.
Adolf Hitler sent the U-864 to Japan with then-revolutionary jet engine technology. By strengthening the Japanese, the Germans hoped to divert Allied troops and materiel away from Europe.