In April 2019 the world watched in horror as flames engulfed one of Europe’s most iconic buildings, leaving little more than a charred and broken ruin. But fast forward one year, and experts are hard at work renovating the gothic beams and arches of Notre-Dame de Paris. In amidst the piles of ash and debris in the cathedral, however, a scientist made a somewhat disturbing discovery.
In order to understand the gravity of the situation, though, let’s recap the horrifying events of last year. The first sign that something was amiss came in the early evening of April 15, 2019, when an alarm notified staff of a fire somewhere in the famous cathedral. After evacuating the building, they rushed to put out the blaze – only to find that they weren’t in the right place. And when they finally reached the correct spot, the flames had, unfortunately, already taken hold.
For those in charge of looking after the cathedral, it was a disaster that they’d long feared. With parts of this vast structure dating back to the 12th century, the precarious state of its stonework was already extremely vulnerable. And in the attic and spire, oak beams from the 1200s had dried out, posing a worrisome fire risk.
In fact, by April 2019 Notre-Dame was being monitored by fire wardens on several occasions each day. Sadly, however, that didn’t stop a blaze from breaking out, probably as a result of an electrical issue. And for more than three hours, Parisians looked on in shock as flames tore through the roof of the historic cathedral.
During the blaze, hundreds of firefighters worked tirelessly to extinguish the flames. And in the meantime, the emergency services formed a human chain to remove priceless artifacts from the terrifying inferno. By the time that the fire was put out, however, the iconic building was a mere shadow of its former self.
When the sun rose the next morning, then, it illuminated a damaged and broken Notre-Dame. In the fire, some two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof had been destroyed, and its 19th-century spire had fallen. Moreover, as it tumbled down, it pierced the ceiling of the vault below, which catastrophically exposed the building’s interior to the burning wreckage.
As the citizens of Paris grieved, news outlets across the globe broke the story of the staggering loss. Reporters also clamored to find out the fate of the priceless artifacts that the cathedral had held in its walls. Which among them had been saved from the fire – and which had been destroyed by the relentless flames?
At the time, you see, Notre-Dame had housed many important religious artifacts, such as a crown of thorns purported to have been worn by Jesus Christ. Additionally, the cathedral also held a piece of ancient wood that was said to have come from the cross used at the Crucifixion. But it wasn’t only objects associated with Christianity that were in peril as the building burned.
That’s right: onlookers also feared for the fate of Notre-Dame’s 18th-century organ, which is so revered that musicians have to register with the cathedral years in advance just for a chance to play it. And what of the countless statues, some of which dated back to the 1300s? Or the famous Mays paintings, gifted to the cathedral annually between 1630 and 1707?
Thankfully, the worst-case scenario didn’t materialize. In fact, some of Notre-Dame’s most famous pieces of art weren’t even in the building at the time that the fire broke out. Towards the end of 2018 repair work had commenced at the cathedral, and as a result, a number of items had been taken from the vault for safekeeping.
Yes, many of Notre-Dame’s religious treasures were stored within the sacristy – a nearby building that wasn’t damaged in the blaze. And as for the artifacts that were within the burning cathedral, many were saved by rescue workers. Not all of the masterpieces of this beloved landmark could be saved, however.
“We have avoided a complete disaster,” the Observatory for Religious Heritage’s Maxime Cumunel told Reuters in 2019. “But some five to 10 percent of the artwork has probably been destroyed, [and] we have to face up to that.” And as smoke-damaged paintings were removed from the cathedral’s blackened ruins, the grave reality of the situation began to hit home.
In the days and weeks following the fire, a number of companies and individuals came forwards with generous donations to help pay for the restoration of Notre-Dame. The French businessman Bernard Arnault, for example, gave the equivalent of $200 million to the cause. However, experts believed that renovation work could cost several billion dollars.
In the meantime, then, restoration experts began to pick their way through the shell of Notre-Dame, clad in helmets to protect against falling debris. While the ruins still smoldered, French President Emmanuel Macron had promised the world that the icon church would be reconstructed. And now, it was the task of these experts to work out how.
At first, these specialists were comforted by how many of the cathedral’s relics had been spared. In a 2020 interview with Science magazine, Aline Magnien from the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory, or LRMH, explained. “What matters isn’t the roof and vault so much as the sanctuary they protect,” she said. “The heart of Notre-Dame has been saved.”
Nevertheless, the restoration looks set to be a mammoth undertaking. For Magnien’s team at LRMH, the first task has been to try to stop any additional destruction from taking place. Then, the 23-strong group hopes to use its research to instruct constructors on how best to rebuild the church.
There have been many hurdles for the team to conquer along the way, however – and it looks as though there will be more to come. For example, one of the first problems that researchers encountered was reaching the cathedral’s damaged stonework. Climbing onto the top of the vault, they reasoned, could cause the entire structure to collapse. But at the same time, observing it from underneath would put them at risk from tumbling detritus.
So researchers have been unable to determine just how unstable the ruins of Notre-Dame really are. Nonetheless, they’ve found that analyzing the color of the stonework has delivered some surprisingly useful results. According to the experts, you see, limestone blocks take on a different hue depending on the temperatures that they have been exposed to.
At between 570°F and 750°F, for example, the iron inside the limestone decomposes, leaving behind a layer of red. And as temperatures rise even further, the color shifts to black. Ultimately, at around 1,500°F, the blocks are little more than powder. Armed with this knowledge, then, researchers have been able to determine the sturdiness of individual stones simply by evaluating their color.
Another issue for researchers has been the amount of water that has made its way into the ruins of Notre-Dame. During the blaze, it seems, firefighters were instructed to aim their water jets away from the fragile stained-glass windows. However, they couldn’t do the same for the stone vault, as the flames threatened to engulf it.
As the firefighters turned their hoses on the limestone walls of the cathedral, the porous material absorbed the water – drastically increasing its weight in some instances. And almost a year later, researchers have noted that it still hasn’t completely dried out. What’s more, the water in the stones expands and contracts depending on the temperature, further wreaking havoc with the unstable structure.
Today, work to protect the fragile shell of Notre-Dame and to restore it to its former glory continues. Macron, you see, has promised that the cathedral will be ready for the public to enter as early as 2024. In the meantime, though, researchers have been enjoying a unique insight into the now-blackened landmark that’s defined Paris for hundreds of years.
Philippe Dillmann, a metal specialist working with LRMH, told Science magazine, “We’re sorting these thousands of fragments – some from our world, some from another and more ancient world. And it’s like we’re communicating with the Middle Ages,” Elsewhere, experts have been seizing the opportunity to deduce the techniques of the 13th-century stonemasons who built the cathedral.
In fact, even the loss of Notre-Dame’s great attic hasn’t been completely without a silver lining. According to experts, an analysis of the remaining beams suggests that they were grown-to-order in a dedicated forest. And given the age of the wood, this implies that the construction of the cathedral was intended for at least a century prior to building work commencing.
But while it might seem that Notre-Dame itself had a somewhat lucky escape, the citizens of Paris have perhaps not been quite so fortunate. Apparently, while the roof of the cathedral burned, great quantities of poisonous lead melted and were released into the atmosphere. Shockingly, though, it has yet to be traced.
Even today, lead is present in roofs across the planet. However, it can also be toxic, with exposure to it sometimes resulting in a number of physical and neurological problems. As well as behavioral difficulties, for instance, it’s believed that the substance can also lead to conditions such as infertility, seizures and even death.
In the aftermath of the Notre-Dame fire, many Parisians grew concerned that lead from the roof may have contaminated the areas surrounding the cathedral. At first, though, the science seemed reassuring. According to metallurgist Aurélia Azéma, a section chief at LRMH, the blaze didn’t reach the temperatures necessary for reducing the material to gas.
Moreover, much of the melted lead from the roof clearly remained in the cathedral, where it solidified to form stalactites. And as officials declined to issue public warnings about the issue, many residents might have assumed that they were safe. However, a far more sinister story was playing out behind the scenes.
Some witnesses, you see, had spotted a yellow haze forming over Notre-Dame as the fire raged below. And according to some of the experts, the inferno did, in fact, exceed the temperatures at which lead combines with oxygen, essentially creating an aerosol effect. So, it seems clear that a portion of the toxic material did find its way into the atmosphere around Paris.
But where did it go? Worryingly, authorities didn’t test the neighborhoods close to the cathedral for several weeks. And when they did, they discovered that a number of local schools contained significant levels of lead. Some recreational areas returned readings of more than 60 times the recommended limit, too.
Because of lead’s toxic nature, French law states that only trace amounts of the substance are allowed on buildings. There have been rumors, however, that officials have attempted to cover up the dangerous levels released by the Notre-Dame fire. Indeed, a 2019 report by The New York Times claims that the risk was known within a couple of days of the disaster – but authorities failed to act.
In September 2019, representatives from Robin Hood, an environmental organization based in France, announced some worrying news. The residents of an apartment one mile from Notre-Dame had asked for some lead tests to be conducted at their property. And on the balcony, experts had found levels of around 20 times the recommended limit.
In addition, lead content eight times the legal limit was detected at a Paris police station. And in a 2019 interview with The Daily Telegraph, union representative Frédéric Guillo explained his concerns. He said, “It proves once again that the lead contamination caused by Notre-Dame fire is a serious, long-term problem that authorities need to protect their citizens from.”
But while the people of Paris are rightly concerned about the lead drifting around in their atmosphere, Notre-Dame itself remains ground zero for this toxic leak. In fact, Azéma detected traces of the material throughout the cathedral – even inside the pipes of an organ. And elsewhere in the building, another scientist made an alarming discovery.
In the ruins of Notre-Dame, wood specialist Emmanuel Maurin, who also leads a team at LRMH, ran tests on surfaces made from oak and other materials. And when he looked at the results, he discovered levels of lead at around 70 times the recommended limit. Despite this, however, those working in the cathedral in the months after the fire weren’t even equipped with proper precautionary clothing.
Thankfully, by March 2020, all that had changed. Researchers working at Notre-Dame were now obliged to submit to rigorous decontamination procedures. According to reports, they’re limited to two and a half hours inside the ruins, after which they must throw away their disposable garments. The scientists are then required to take a thorough shower, a task that they sometimes complete up to five times a day.
Although researchers must follow these strict guidelines, there are some who believe that Notre-Dame might have been releasing toxic lead into the environment for years. Even before the fire, for example, it’s thought that rainwater may have washed the material from the roof into the nearby River Seine. And as a result, it could have already been contaminating the region for hundreds of years.
What’s more, there are other factors that could be affecting lead levels across Paris, including the use of gasoline and toxic paints. So, exactly how much of it can be traced back to the fire at Notre-Dame? In an attempt to solve the mystery, then, scientist Sophie Ayrault plans to compare samples taken at the cathedral to those gathered elsewhere in Paris. This vital work has yet to take place, however.
In the meantime, the team at LRMH have been busy trying to find ways of removing lead traces from the ruins of Notre-Dame. So far, ideas have included using a special putty to extract the toxic material and deploying lasers to cleanse the porous stones. But according to geologist Véronique Vergès-Belmin, who heads up the LRMH’s stone department, the process will likely involve a series of different approaches.
Still, as The Guardian reported back in April 2019, Macron promised that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt “more beautiful than before.” And now, researchers at LRHM are echoing this sentiment. Speaking to Science magazine, Magnien claimed, “Notre-Dame will come out of this experience enriched. And so will we.” But if it can be proven that toxic lead has leaked from the cathedral into Paris’ parks and schools, it seems likely that the fire will leave behind a far darker legacy.
Notre-Dame, it seems, isn’t the only entity on earth from which a deadly substance may be leaking. Take this Soviet nuclear sub, for instance, that sunk to the bottom of the Norwegian Sea in 1989. It has the potential to start spilling lethal pollution – and it could be truly terrifying.
It’s April 1989, and the state-of-the-art Soviet nuclear sub Komsomolets has been carrying out her duties underwater for more than a month. Currently, in fact, 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. Severodvinsk itself, meanwhile, is located on the White Sea, which in turn borders the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea. And because of its naval ship-building industry, to this day the city in northwestern Russia remains largely closed to foreigners.
Meanwhile, at the time of the Komsomolets’ launch, the Cold War was still being waged. This bitter rivalry between the communist Soviet Union and its supporters and a cadre of Western powers led by the U.S. had by that point been rumbling on for almost four decades. And the Komsomolets was a key part of the arms race that the two blocs pursued.
The Komsomolets was a Project 685 Plavnik submarine – the only one of her type ever to be built, in fact. She had initially been designed to be a kind of prototype vessel for a new generation of Soviet nuclear subs, and when completed she was fully equipped and ready for active cruising and combat.
And on April 7, 1989 – the day the Komsomolets sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea – the submarine had two nuclear weapons aboard containing deadly plutonium. On top of that, there was also the nuclear reactor that powered the vessel. It’s no wonder, then, that experts have dreaded potential leakages of this deadly cargo ever since the sinking.
Interestingly, by 1983 – the year the Komsomolets was launched – nuclear submarines had become one of the principal weapons of choice in the Cold War. It had been the U.S., though, that first developed submarines driven by nuclear reactors. Ross Gunn, a researcher at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, came up with the concept as early as 1939.
But the world’s first nuclear-powered sub wouldn’t actually take to the open seas until January 1955, when the USS Nautilus made her maiden voyage. And one of the principal advantages of a nuclear-powered submarine was that it was able to remain beneath the waves for much more prolonged periods than conventional vessels.
By contrast, diesel-powered subs had to surface quite frequently to replenish their electric batteries. What’s more, the new nuclear vessels were far more capable of traveling underwater anywhere around the globe without being detected. All in all, then, the speed and mobility of the new nuclear subs rendered the radar technology of the WWII era largely ineffective.
And while the Soviet Union was slower out of the blocks than the Americans with its first nuclear-powered sub, it wasn’t by much. The first operational Soviet nuclear submarine arrived in 1957, in fact, in the shape of the K-3 Leninskiy Komsomol. But just like her successor the Komsomolets, this pioneering Soviet vessel met with a disaster that resulted in the loss of many submariners’ lives.
Sailing in the Norwegian Sea in 1967, the Leninskiy Komsomol horrifically caught ablaze. Consequently, the automated fire-fighting system pumped high concentrations of carbon dioxide into the hull, which in turn had the tragic effect of suffocating many of the Soviet sailors on board. The death toll eventually reached 39. And as we’ll see a little later, there are some chilling parallels with the disaster that befell the Komsomolets in 1989.
Meanwhile, after the U.S.’ development of nuclear-powered submarines had given it an early advantage in the Cold War, the next obvious step was to arm the vessels with nuclear weapons. And it was again the Americans who were to first reach the milestone. They were able to steal a march on the Soviets with the USS George Washington, which was equipped with Polaris warheads.
The George Washington first went out on patrol in November 1960. Then, just a year afterwards, the Soviets followed suit by putting their own nuclear-armed submarine in service. This vessel was the K-19 – and she was yet another Soviet craft that met with catastrophe. Indeed, 11 people were killed in accidents during her construction – so, before the sub had even launched.
But worse was to come. In 1961 the K-19’s crew was exposed to high radiation levels owing to a reactor system failure. Then, over the two years that followed, 17 submariners lost their lives as a result of radiation poisoning. And while the ill-starred vessel was subsequently repaired and returned to service, she would ultimately be the site of yet more tragedy, as a fire aboard the sub in 1972 would lead to the deaths of 30 more crewmen.
By tradition, mariners are notoriously superstitious. And after all these accidents, it’s said that sailors nicknamed the K-19 “Hiroshima.” Even her launch had been singularly inauspicious. A man rather than the traditional woman had been chosen to break a bottle of champagne on the boat. Yet the bottle rebounded off the hull’s rubber covering intact, which was regarded as a bad omen at the time – and that had gone on to be the case.
So, by the early 1960s, both the Soviets and the Americans had submarines sailing in the depths of the world’s oceans that were armed with nuclear weapons and powered by nuclear reactors. Both sides also continued to refine and develop their nuclear submarine capabilities. And it was in that context that the Soviets commissioned the Komsomolets.
In 1966, you see, the Soviets initiated an advanced nuclear submarine development program that was given the name of Project 685. The corresponding specification called for a vessel that could carry torpedoes and cruise missiles armed with either nuclear or orthodox payloads. And in 1974 the design work was completed, leaving shipbuilders to lay the keel of the Komsomolets – the first step in her construction – in the spring of 1978.
During building of the sub at Severodvinsk – the biggest shipyard in the world – the Komsomolets was known only as K-278. The vessel had a double hull partly constructed out of titanium, and she ultimately came to 400 feet long, 27 feet across and 37 feet tall.
That titanium hull enabled the K-278, moreover, to dive to unheard-of depths – much lower than U.S. submarines of the time, in fact. Her operating level was some 3,000 feet, although she was even recorded as having attained a depth of 3,350 feet. And although K-278 was essentially a test model, she did still go on regular patrols.
K-278’s inner hull was divided, meanwhile, into seven sections. Compartments numbers two and three were designated as a safety area, with the bulkheads there having been specially strengthened. These two berths were designed as a place of refuge for the crew in the event of an emergency aboard the sub. And, unfortunately, the vessel would indeed encounter such a situation.
Plus, part of Project 658’s brief had been to design a vessel with many automated features to enable crew numbers to be kept to a minimum. And with that in mind, the complement of the sub was indeed lower than may have been expected for a craft of her scale. The standard crew roster consisted of 12 petty officers and ordinary sailors, 30 officers and 22 warrant officers – a total of 64 men.
But while most Soviet submarines were known only by their letters and numbers, K-278 was given the rare distinction of a proper moniker: Komsomolets. The Americans and their NATO allies, by contrast, dubbed the vessel “Mike.” NATO had initially conceived of Mike as the name for an entire class of submarines, as the organization’s members assumed that many of these advanced vessels would be added to the Soviet Navy in due course. As we’ve heard, though, Komsomolets remained the sole member of her class.
And as we now know, calamity struck the Komsomolets and her crew on April 7, 1989. At shortly after 11:00 a.m. on that day, she had been cruising at a depth of 1,250 feet through the Norwegian Sea. Her position was around 100 miles from the remote Norwegian territory of Bear Island, and she’d left port 39 days earlier.
Then, just moments after Seaman Nodari Bukhnikashvili had reported that everything at the sub’s stern was as it should be, an important airline cracked. Suddenly, things were not at all as they should be. A shower of hot oil subsequently ignited, and a fierce fire fueled by the oxygen from the broken pipe broke out.
Instruments in the sub’s control room then showed a sudden temperature spike in compartment seven. But there was no response when the duty engineer, Captain Third Rank Vyacheslav Yudin, tried to contact Bukhnikashvili via the intercom. That worrying state of affairs left the vessel’s commander, Captain First Rank Yevgeniy Vanin, to rush to the control room. And there, Vanin’s fellow submariners recommended that the captain should release fire-extinguishing freon gas into compartment seven.
But Vanin hesitated to give the order. You see, the freon wouldn’t only put the blaze out, but it would also asphyxiate Seaman Bukhnikashvili. As it happened, though, the unfortunate sailor had already become the first of the crew to die, having been killed by the intense flames. And now the fire was out of control, beginning to spread along cable ducts to other compartments.
The Komsomolets’ automated safety mechanisms thus started to operate, shutting down systems. Fearful of a catastrophic meltdown, the officer in charge of the reactor also cut the power to the sub altogether. As a result, then, the Komsomolets lost the thrust of her propeller. And at 11.13 a.m. the vessel was stuck at a depth of 500 feet with no drive force and no control over the rudder.
By repeatedly voiding the submarine’s tanks, however, Vanin succeeded in nursing the vessel to the surface, after which he sent a specially coded distress message. Still, the inferno in the submarine’s hull continued to blaze. And owing to the fire, all crew not directly involved in repair attempts were therefore ordered on deck.
Yet as the minutes ticked away, there was still no hope in sight, leaving Vanin to broadcast a non-secure SOS plea at 12:19 p.m. And while the men on the deck were exposed to freezing temperatures, they nevertheless clung on for dear life. A few hours later, however, the Komsomolets had started to sink. Some of the crew thus boarded life rafts, but many would subsequently drown or succumb to exposure while waiting for rescue.
As the Komsomolets plunged further downwards, then, six men remained aboard, including Vanin. Fortunately, five of the submariners ultimately managed to reach the escape pod and clamber inside. Yet although the mechanism to the pod was eventually triggered, just one of the five aboard left the depths with his life. The others – Vanin among them – plummeted thousands of feet to their certain deaths on the seabed.
And those left on the sea surface fared little better, as the icy temperature of the water would prove too much for some. Finally, though, 81 minutes after the Komsomolets disappeared beneath the waves, a fishing vessel named the Aleksey Khlobystov arrived on the scene and picked up 30 survivors from the original crew of 69. The immediate death toll was 39, while three more men would pass away shortly afterwards.
But what of the Komsomolets herself? Well, as we noted earlier, the submarine had two nuclear warheads aboard as well as the nuclear reactor. Understandably, then, the Soviets consequently came under intense diplomatic pressure from Norway and other countries to try to recover this highly hazardous material. The potential for lethal pollution of the ocean was all too clear.
Eventually, the Soviets sent the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh – a scientific vessel equipped with deep-sea craft – to the location of the wreck. And some eight weeks after the disaster, the Keldysh located the stricken submarine on the seabed at a depth of almost 6,000 feet. According to the Soviets, though, the vessel posed little risk of causing serious damage to the ocean.
Then the Keldysh revisited the wreck site in 1991, with crew members going on to use remote-camera equipment to film inside the Komsomolets. And after doing so, researchers ultimately decided that while radiation pollution was at low levels in the area, further surveys were nonetheless essential. However, a year after that, the Soviets discovered that there were holes – some as wide as 16 inches – right across the sub’s titanium shell. Again, though, it was claimed that there was only a low chance of radioactive material spreading through the Norwegian Sea.
But in 1994 the Russians released a much more alarming report asserting that plutonium from the Komsomolets’ warheads had in fact leaked out. Over the next two years, then, further expeditions were carried out to seal some of the cracks in the submarine’s hull and to cover the nuclear weapons. Thankfully, these procedures were successful, leading Russian authorities to maintain that there would be little danger of further pollution before at least 2015.
So, the wreck was subsequently left to rust at the bottom of the Norwegian Sea. And when the Norwegians later took samples of seawater in the area, they happily reported no evidence of radioactive contamination. In July 2019, however, another exploratory expedition was mounted by a Russian-Norwegian team to check on the status of the Komsomolets.
A press release issued by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research in July 2019 made for sobering reading, too. The institute reported, you see, that the radiation reading at one spot on the wreck was a hair-raising 800,000 times higher than the background level in the Norwegian Sea. Nevertheless, the research team’s leader, Hilde Elise Heldal, clarified matters, saying, “We took water samples from inside this particular duct because the Russians had documented leaks here both in the 1990s and more recently in 2007. So we weren’t surprised to find high levels [of radiation] here.”
And Heldal had further words of reassurance. “What we have found during our survey has very little impact on Norwegian fish and seafood,” she pointed out. “In general, cesium levels in the Norwegian Sea are very low, and as the wreck is so deep, the pollution from Komsomolets is quickly diluted.” Heldal added, though, that it was crucial for monitoring of the wreck to continue.
It’s a relief, too, to know that the sea off Norway is safe – at least for now. And it should also be noted that submarine wrecks don’t always have such potentially catastrophic consequences. Evidence of that comes in the fate of the French sub Souffleur, which was in the hands of the Nazi-backed collaborationist Vichy government during WWII. In 1941 the British submarine HMS Parthian sank the Souffleur off the coast of Lebanon with the loss of 52 hands; only four crew members survived by swimming ashore.
Now, the Souffleur lies in about 130 feet of water some three miles due west of the Lebanese capital Beirut. And far from being a scary possible source of radioactivity like the Komsomolets, the site has instead become a destination for advanced divers. Apparently, a dive at this well-preserved wreck is a magical experience, with marine life such as sting rays, morays and groupers swimming around the rusting and seaweed-bedecked former vessel.
So, for the moment, the highly dangerous radioactive material sitting 5,575 feet below the surface of the Norwegian Sea doesn’t appear to be an immediate danger to marine or human life. And we can only hope that this will continue to be the case, as the consequences of nuclear material leaking into the waters would surely be devastating.