Komsomolets: A Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Wendy Wallace
CIS Environmental Watch, Spring 1992
August 15, 2000

On April 7, 1989, a fire broke out aboard the nuclear-powered submarine Komsomolets, and despite efforts of the crew, burned out of control. The submarine sank to a depth of 5,600 feet, 125 miles off the northern coast of Norway, and forty-two out of a crew of sixty-nine perished. The sinking of the Komsomolets is only one in a series of accidents involving the Soviet fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and ships. If the recent history of the Soviet nuclear industry is any guide, it will not be the last.

The Sinking of the Komsomolets

By tonnage and speed, the Komsomolets is within the range of the latest US attack submarines of the Los Angeles-class. [1] The Komsomolets was built and based near Murmansk and was designed, according to a Soviet Navy officer, to test technologies, materials, and operations at great depths. The sub’s titanium double hull enabled it to dive to 3,000 feet three times deeper than conventional steel-hulled subs.

By April 7, 1989, the Komsomolets had been at sea tracking US subs for 39 days. [2] At approximately 11:00 am, a short circuit sparked a fire in the seventh compartment. The fire spread to the sixth compartment, killing an officer. At the same time, a power surge swept through the electrical system, sparking new fires throughout the submarine.

The Komsomolets surfaced and sent an SOS to the Soviet military communications network. Navy headquarters deliberated over rescue plans, causing what may have been a fatal delay. Soviet rescue ships started out towards the sub from a navy base near Murmansk, some thirteen hours away from the rescue party. Crewmen on the sub fought the fire, passing out from air saturated with carbon monoxide that was fed through their gas masks. Though poisoned crewmen were carried up to the deck, two men died immediately. Commander Vanin, the sub’s main officer, decided to let the fire in these compartments burn itself out, as he saw no possibility of stopping them. The fire burned through seals in the hull, and water gushed into the sixth and seventh compartments.

The order to evacuate was given. Only one raft capable of holding twenty-five men was inflated; fifty crewmen tried to climb aboard. The submarine began to sink, stem-first, into the sea. Several officers and crewmen, including Commander Vanin, remained inside. They attempted to escape in the emergency capsule, a device unique to Soviet submarines. The capsule failed to detach until the submarine hit bottom, where the pressure mounted to 2,200 pounds per sq. inch. When it finally surfaced, two crew members were blown into the ocean and the others left inside perished from toxic smoke. Only one man survived in the escape capsule.

Efforts to inflate other emergency rafts were unsuccessful. Many crewmen clung to the raft, immersed in 36-degree water. Twenty-nine men were rescued alive, but two of them later died from shock. Of the forty-two casualties, only four were reported to have died from the fire and subsequent explosions; the rest drowned or died from immersion in the icy water while awaiting help.

Plans for a Salvage Operation

Estimates of the environmental danger posed by the sunken sub are varied. Norman Polmar, editor of Guide to the Soviet Navy, said that based upon past submarine sinkings, the loss of the Soviet craft probably posed few environmental dangers: “The Soviets lost three nuclear subs…before this one and we’ve lost two, and there was no indication of any radiation leak or other problem posing an environmental hazard.” [3] Responding to a similar issue after the 1986 sinking of a Soviet sub off Bermuda, Vice Admiral Powell F. Carter, Jr., then of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that there would be little environmental risk from sunken sub. He referred to two U.S. sub sinkings involving the Thresher and Scorpion, in which no contamination had been found. [4]

Retired Admiral Eugene J. Carroll, Jr., of the Center for Defense Information warned, however, that while the sub posed no immediate environmental hazard, the greatest danger would be perhaps years away, when sea water dissolved the reactor vessel and fuel covering:

“Over time radioactive elements will leak out, spread through the water column and be a long-term contaminating source.” [5]

In April 1989, the Soviet Navy indicated its intention to raise the Komsomolets. Admiral Vargin of the Northern Reet sought to reassure the public of the lack of danger, emphasizing that the sub’s nuclear reactor had been “fully shut down” before the sub sank. Also, the two torpedoes equipped with nuclear warheads that were on board had sunk to the bottom without detonating. “They were not battle ready,” Vargin said, “and experts concluded they don’t represent a danger.” [6]

American experts doubt that Soviet efforts alone can raise the sub. While the Soviet Navy has submersible equipment and a number of sub salvage and rescue ships, these are primarily designed to handle submersibles sent down to rescue trapped crews. None have lifts or cranes capable of handling more than 750 tons. Norman Polmar, an expert on the Soviet Navy, said that the Soviets could modify supertankers to provide sufficiently large platforms, but doubted if they could plan and assemble the equipment necessary for the operation. “While technically possible, it is an incredibly difficult undertaking,” said Donald Dean, a salvage technician who questioned the operation. [7] Instead of raising the submarine. Dean suggested posting a sea-going tug over the site of the sub to maintain Soviet jurisdictional rights and to prevent other countries from gaining information about the sub’s technology.

The Leningrad Central Design Office for Marine Technology “Rubin,” which was charged by the government to salvage the Komsomolets, announced in June 1990 that it would collaborate with the Deep Sea Operations Consortium based in the Netherlands. The Consortium of five Dutch companies, led by the salvage group Smit Internationale NV, was chosen by the Soviet Design Office for Marine Technology. They plan to raise the submarine in the summer of 1992. D.C. Kaakebeen, a spokesman for Smit Internationale, stated, “We will simply raise [the sub] and hand it over to the Soviets.” [8] He noted that no ship has ever been raised from a depth greater than 660 feet, while the sub lies at 5,600. The first phase of the operation, a viability study, was scheduled to begin in 1990, and Mr. Kaakebeen said the group hoped to raise the sub sometime in the summer of 1992.

Yurii Soldatov, Deputy Director of the Main Administration of the Ship Construction Ministry, elaborated the Russian view of the sub’s raising and provided various reasons for the decision to raise the Komsomolets. [9] In addition to the assertion that a decisive explanation for the accident can only be found by raising the sub, Soldatov stressed the urgency of the salvage by alluding to the environmental hazard posed by the USS Scorpion, which sunk in 1968 off the Sea of Azores. While the US Navy stated at first that radiation leaks were impossible, a recent analysis of the water has confirmed the presence of heavy metals. The Komsomolets sunk in a biologically productive area in which the Soviet Union, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Great Britain all have fishing and overall ecological interests.

The Soviet government sought outside cooperation when it became clear that Soviet science and industry were not prepared to undertake the salvage operation quickly. Deputy Director of the State Ministry of Ship Building Rezunov rated the Dutch proposal as “realistic, technically well-planned, and economically provident.” [10] The Consortium offers powerful equipment, including an underwater crane with a lift-capacity of 12,000-14,000 tons, special cables, and guidance and taxi systems.

Payment for the operation will be provided to “Rubin” on government credit. One of the conditions in the contract between the Dutch consortium and the Soviets is the establishment of a joint-venture, with “Rubin” as co-owner of the ship-raising installation. This joint-venture will be used in the future for the salvaging of sunken ships from great depths at the request of Soviet and international organizations.

A report produced by an ad hoc commission of experts from the Norwegian Nuclear Energy Safety Authority (NESA), Foreign and Defense Ministry, and research institutions warned of possible dangers of raising the sub that are mentioned neither by the Soviet government nor the press. [11] The salvage operation allegedly poses the risks that the reactor may restart during the salvage, and that a leakage of radiation may occur that would poison the surface water, plankton, and fish. The commission also estimated that it would take as least 100 years before the hull corroded enough to pose a radiation risk. The commission criticized Smit Internationale for agreeing to co-sponsor the operation, despite the potential for environmental damage. Knut Gussgard, Director of the NESA, stated that the “Rubin” Central Marine Technology Design bureau failed to furnish information to NESA regarding the safety of the operation, even though it was asked repeatedly to do so.

It was reported in September 1991 that a Soviet team dived six times to a depth of 1,700 meters in deep-sea craft. They took radiation readings as well as samples from the seabed and water. Using manipulators, divers managed to extract the equipment that had fallen off as the sub sank the hydro-acoustic station receiver, a hatch ring, and a giant screw bolt. [12]

Problems with the Nuclear Fleet

The sinking of the Komsomolets caused great controversy in the former Soviet Union, where it was suggested that the Navy sought no help from Norway because it did not want the technology from its prototype submarine to fall into Western hands. [13] More crewmen might have survived, it is asserted, if Norwegian rescue stations that were located near the Komsomolets had been contacted.

Soviet officials admit that the sub accident did bring specific problems to the surface. O.D. Baklanov, the Soviet official heading the Komsomolets inquiry, stated that specialists discovered that certain faults in the prototype sub’s electrical and hydraulic systems contributed to the fire and thus require modification. In addition, rescue services that are performed jointly by the navy, merchant marine, and fishing fleet need to be integrated and made more efficient. [14]

The Komsomolets disaster made apparent a host of problems involving the former Soviet nuclear-powered fleet, some which will pose danger for years to come. Poor maintenance standards and inadequate safety precautions have caused explosions in civilian nuclear-power plants, in disposal tanks for nuclear waste, and aboard nuclear-powered submarines. Nuclear reactors began powering naval vessels in 1954, with the commissioning of the USS Nautilus. Currently some 550 reactors power about 350 vessels worldwide. [15] Soviet estimates show the number of nuclear-powered vessels may be larger. According to an article in Energiya, the former Soviet Union had approximately 380 reactors on board its ships. 350 of these reactors are used to power submarines, six are aboard battle cruisers, and twenty-five are on icebreakers, Naval research ships, and unarmed atomic-powered submarines. Energiya further stated that “[the USSR] has lost no fewer than five submarines. Four of these downed subs carried nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors…43 nuclear warheads and six nuclear reactors lie at the bottom of the sea. All of these lie in sea water, are being corroded, and are awaiting their time.” [16] Citing US Navy dossiers as its source, Greenpeace reports that as a result of eleven accidents, more than 50 nuclear warheads and eight reactors now lie on the floor of the world’s oceans. [17] Most of them are said to have belonged to the former Soviet Union.

In a public letter addressed to the USSR Procurator-General Trubin, Captain Ilya Kolton, a research fellow at the Kurchatov Nuclear Energy Institute, accused Admiral of the Fleet Chemavin of acts of criminal liability that contributed to the Komsomolets disaster. [18] He blamed the Navy for authorizing the addition of vessels unfit for combat operations to the stock of fighting ships. Kolton alleged that problems with nuclear-powered submarines are the result of monopolistic attitudes in industry and science and the total power of admirals, and that the buoyant escape chamber aboard the Komsomolets that failed to work was never tested at its maximum depth. According to Kolton, in 1988 top naval commanders knew about the chamber’s structural faults because they had been detected in other subs.

The Komsomolets disaster also reflects general difficulties brought on by the stagnation and disintegration of the Soviet system itself. Flaws that existed in central planning and the infrastructure for years are now becoming apparent in every phase of the Soviet nuclear power industry. [19] Technical requirements, proper equipment testing, and coordination of rescue efforts do not function effectively. Human error is yet another important cause of accidents. For instance, in a 1988 accident aboard the nuclear submarine Rossiya, Chief Physicist Kushelev issued an erroneous command to open a valve, which almost led to reactor meltdown. It was discovered that Kushelev had been kept on watch duty for five days without relief. He had been compelled to work on account of ambitious planning targets that led to “storming,” which is a last-minute rush to complete a task on deadline. [20]

The sinking of the Komsomolets has been followed by a number of other serious accidents involving nuclear-powered submarines. On June 26, 1989 a month after the Komsomolets accident – an accident occurred in the Norwegian Sea involving an unnamed Soviet submarine, in which several persons supposedly were exposed to radiation. [21] More recently, on June 3, 1992, an explosion on a nuclear submarine took place at the northern base of Semeromorsk. A compressor exploded while it was being inspected, and although the blast was not reported to have affected the submarine’s reactor, one officer died and five of the crew were injured. [22] As for the Komsomolets, it is not known at this time whether the submarine will be raised as planned in the summer of 1992, or which office within the former Soviet government has assumed responsibility for the operation. The salvage operation may well have lost its priority as the Russian government wrestles with basic issues of economic reform, ownership of military forces, and political legitimacy.

August 15, 2000 Update

The Komsomolets remains on the ocean floor to this day. Periodically calls have been made for its retrieval, but the likelihood of any action in the near future is slim.

[1] Richard Halloran, “A Soviet Nuclear Sub Catches Fire and Reportedly Sinks off Norway,” New York Times, April 8, 1989, p. 1.
[2] Much of this description was taken from William M. Carley, “Inferno at Sea: How Secret Soviet Sub and its Nuclear Arms Sank North of Norway,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 1990, p. A1.
[3] Halloran, p. 1.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Francis Clines, “Russians Planning Recovery of Sub,” New York Times, April 12, 1989, p. A8.
[7] Bernard Trainor, “Rescue Capsule Saved Only 1 on Sinking Soviet Submarine,” New York Times, May 4, 1989, p. A1.
[8] “Salvaging a Soviet Sub,” Wall Street Journal, June 29, 1990, p. A10.
[9] G. Lomanov, “Pryzhok v glubinu,” Pravitel’stvennyi vestnik, no. 31, July 1990, p. 12.
[10] Ibid., p. 12.
[11] Vladimir Brodetsky, “Raising Sunk Nuclear Sub May Cause Another Chernobyl,” Moscow News, No. 23, June 9, 1991, p. 15.
[12] Moscow Central Television, September 13, 1991; in JPRS: Environmental Issues, November 15, 1991, p. 77.
[13] William M. Carley, “Inferno at Sea: How Secret Soviet Sub and its Nuclear Arms Sank North of Norway,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 1990, p. A1.
[14] Ibid.
[15] William Arkin and Joshua Handler, “Nuclear Disasters at Sea, Then and Now,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1989, pp. 20-24.
[16] Vladislav Larin, “Voyenno-morskoi atom,” Energiya, June 1991, pp. 27-29.
[17] “Information from Western Sources: A Chronicle of Nuclear Accidents,” Komsomol’skaya pravda, July 6, 1991, p. 5; in JPRS: Environmental Issues, December 27, 1991, p. 55.
[18] Ilya Kolton, “I’m Bringing an Action Against the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy,” Moscow News, June 9, 1991, p. 15.
[19] Gabriel Schoenfeld, “Trouble Aboard Red October,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1989, pp. 13-15.
[20] Ibid., p. 15.
[21] “Krupnye avarii na sovetskikh atomnykh podvodnykh lodkakh,” Spaseniye, No. 5, June 1991, p. 2.
[22] “Blast on Russian Nuclear Submarine Kills Officer,” Executive News Service, June 3, 1992.

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