TechThe K-219 disaster. Nuclear arsenal at the bottom of the Atlantic

The K‑219 disaster. Nuclear arsenal at the bottom of the Atlantic

The K-219 ship on the surface. Visible damage to the hull above one of the silos.
The K-219 ship on the surface. Visible damage to the hull above one of the silos.
Images source: © Public domain

1:41 PM EDT, October 7, 2023

During the Cold War, the Soviet fleet lost several nuclear submarines. Although not all disasters were as tragic as the sinking of the K-141 Kursk or the K-278 Komsomolec submarines, some, despite the passage of years, have not received a convincing explanation. One of them is the disaster of the K-219 submarine.

"There is simply no such thing as an accident, it always results from someone's negligence, lack of training, and gaps in procedures" - asserted Admiral Sergey Gorshkov, commander of the Soviet Union's Navy and the architect of its power from the late '70s and '80s.

Looking at the long list of Soviet and Russian submarine disasters, especially nuclear-powered vessels, it's hard not to agree with him.

The Americans lost a total of two submarines with reactors on board, the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion, both in the 60s.

Maritime tragedies were not in vain: they led to such improvements in designs, crew training, and the refinement of procedures, that since then, although various accidents have occurred, the United States has not lost any nuclear units.

Disasters of Soviet nuclear-powered ships

Meanwhile, according to official reports, the Russians have lost at least seven, including the non-operational K-159. Some for trivial reasons, inconsistent with the scale of the tragedy that ensued.

Ship of Project 670A - the same as K-429.
Ship of Project 670A - the same as K-429.© Public domain | Unknown

An example is the fate of the ship K-429, which, with a random crew hastily gathered, was not able to release the emergency buoy to the surface because - to prevent it from accidentally detaching and interfering with its duty - it had previously been welded to the hull.

Several dozen sailors from the K-278 Komsomolets submarine did not survive because the Russians chased away the Norwegian fishermen rushing to help. And the K-3 Leninsky Komsomol - although it did not ultimately sink - killed almost 40 people, because someone stole a copper seal.

Moreover - although no ship sank as a result of a nuclear propulsion failure - problems with the reactors killed dozens of sailors. The level of safety is starkly evidenced by the unofficial nickname sailors gave the K-19 ship: "floating Hiroshima".

Early "boomers" - Project 667A submarines

The sinking of the K-219 ship fits into this series of catastrophes. It was a unit belonging to a long, 34-ship series of the 667A project. Ships of this type had a hull that was about 420 feet long, almost 39 feet wide, and had a submerged displacement reaching around 10,582 short tons. It was manned by a crew of 120 people.

R-27 missile - an upgraded version with three warheads.
R-27 missile - an upgraded version with three warheads.© Public domain

The Project 667A ships had two VM-24 reactors, allowing them to reach an underwater speed of 32.2 miles per hour.

On board were torpedoes and 16 ballistic missiles with R-27 nuclear warheads. It was a powerful weapon with a range of about 1491 miles, with a strong nuclear warhead capable of reducing entire cities to rubble.

20-year-old hero

On the K-219, it was in the silo of one of the R-27 missiles that the crew discovered a small leak on October 3, 1986. At that time, the submarine was on Atlantic patrol. After forcing the GIUK gap (an area extending from Greenland, through Iceland to Great Britain), the Soviet unit made it to the open ocean and patrolled about 621 miles east of Bermuda.

GIUK Gap - the route of Soviet submarines to the Atlantic
GIUK Gap - the route of Soviet submarines to the Atlantic© Public domain

The leak was probably the result of a sloppily done, earlier repair, but it did not pose a serious threat to the ship. Captain Igor Britanow ordered to descend to a depth of 131 feet, where lower pressure would enable quick pumping out of the water accumulated in the silo.

The plan was good, however, besides the leak in the hull, there was probably another one in the rocket body, due to which fuel or its vapors could react with water. That was enough to initiate the explosion.

The explosion was far more dangerous than the leak. It killed two sailors, fatally poisoned another, and the intruding water caused the ship to sink rapidly, which submerged about 984 feet.

The ship's automation kicked in, sealing the watertight bulkheads, and cutting off the sections at risk of flooding from the rest. In this way, 25 people were isolated, however, the captain took a risk and opened passage, thereby saving his subordinates.

Sergey Preminin - a sailor who deactivated the reactors on the ship K-219.
Sergey Preminin - a sailor who deactivated the reactors on the ship K-219.© Public domain

The problem remained the ship's propulsion: the safety system that shut down the reactors did not work. The world was saved from a core meltdown and an uncontrolled explosion by one of the Russian sailors, 20-year-old Sergei Preminin. Bravely, he stepped forward and manually lowered the control rods, which, by absorbing neutrons, allow the fission reaction of atomic nuclei to be limited.

Sinking of the ship K-219

Sergei Preminin prevented an explosion, but due to the difference in pressures, he could not return to the safe part of the vessel. He passed away in the reactor compartment. The vessel was able to surface, and the crew was evacuated onto a Soviet merchant ship when an order from Moscow arrived.

The British captain, who ensured the safety of the crew and remained on K-219, was dismissed. Command was handed over to the political officer, and the crew was ordered to return to the contaminated ship and tow it to the port in Murmansk.

Damaged hull of the ship K-219
Damaged hull of the ship K-219© Public domain

Before K-219 was refitted, on October 6, 1986, the ship sank. The circumstances in which it went under have led to speculation whether the disaster was the result of damage, or whether the commander helped the unit disappear beneath the waves, thereby saving his crew from a suicidal mission.

Upon returning to the USSR, the ship's commander was accused of sabotage, but was not punished. Instead, the Russians began to claim that the first explosion was the result of a collision with an American submarine. Both the Americans and Captain Britanow denied this.

The K-219 settled at a depth of about 19,685 feet. The hull of the ship broke, and the atomic arsenal fell out of the silos. As the expedition showed, which aimed to assess the condition of the wreck, the missiles are lying next to the hull. Due to the depth, no attempt was made to raise the wreck or recover the nuclear warheads, which still lie at the bottom of the ocean to this day.

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