Russian K-19 nuclear submarine saved the globe from third world war

July 4 is considered to be a traditional day to commemorate the tragedy of the K-19 submarine that took place in 1961. The submarine crew managed to prevent a nuclear explosion on board the cruiser and, as a possible consequence, a third world war. Not one of the sailors, (there were 139 crew members on board at the time), received a reward from the state and the families of the victims were left without support. For almost 30 years, no-one knew about this accident and the surviving sailors were bound by their duty to keep the military secret. But this year, two non-government based organizations, the Gorbachev Fund and the Federation of Peace and Conciliation, have nominated all the survivors for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006. But Nobel Peace Prizes are nor awarded post-mortem and also cannot be awarded to a whole group, for which reason each of the 48 surviving sailors will be nominated separately.

The K-19 nuclear submarine (project no. 658M, Hotel type) entered history as the first Soviet submarine fleet to have been involved in an accident connected with a nuclear reactor. Despite the strict top secret fingerboard, it was impossible to completely hide what had happened. The sailors referred to it as Hiroshima or the Day of Judgment boat for its sinister reputation. Only 16 years ago, in 1990, did it officially become public knowledge that on the 4th July 1961, during Arctic Circle studies on the K-19 submarine, under the command of first class captain Nikolai Zateev in the North Atlantic, the crew was dehermeticized and the nuclear reactor cooling system shut down. The sacrifice of the lives of eight crew members prevented an atomic explosion which could have caused a global ecological catastrophe and begun a nuclear war.

According to a reconstructive chronicle of events, early in the morning on July 4th 1961 at 04:15, burning-hot steam penetrated the pipe of one of the pressure sensors. As a result of the fall in water level, both pumps, controlled by the circulation of warmth, became jammed and the active zone of the reactor heated up drastically. Due to the peculiarity of its construction, it was impossible to turn off the dangerous section.

Furthermore, the serious emergency situation was aggravated by the political circumstances. In 1961, at the peak of the Caribbean crisis, the world was on the brink of war and atomic submarines belonging to the USA and the USSR carried a constant military duty in the depths of the peaceful ocean. The Soviet submarine K-19 itself was situated in Norway Sea at the time of the incident, very close to the island Jan Mayen, where a NATO base was located. The explosion could have been interpreted as a military provocation from the USSR side, an attempt to make a nuclear attack along the coast of North America. Had this occurred, the response from the side of America and NATO would have been immeasurable. In the given context, subjunctive inclinations, which historians so strongly dislike, correspond to reality in the entirely predictable past, with an implacable arming race on both sides of the iron curtain.

The K-19 submarine and its commander Nikolai Zateev spent two hours balanced on the brink of a third world war, suddenly about to become reality.Thecrew took 120 minutes to mount the supernumerary coolingsystem forthe atomic reactor. During this time, eight people received huge doses of radiation (5000 to 6000 BER), and the remainder breathed in radioactive vapours, but the temperature in the reactor was restored to the level where it could be controlled by the control panel apparatus. Two hours later, the sailors began to show symptoms of radiation sickness disease. Days after the accident, eight members of the crew died. It was later noted that the work had been carried out under conditions of intense radiation.

Due to the faulty aerial on the main transmitter, Zateev was not able to inform the base of the accident. Using the emergency transmitter, he managed to communicate with two ordinary diesel submarines: C-159 and C-270, whose commanders immediately risked their own safety to go to the accident zone. By accessing C-159, Zateev was able to communicate with the fleet headquarters, after which four medical reinforcement groups were sent to the fateful submarine in rescue boats and destroyers. By the end of the day, 65 sailors had been transferred to C-270. By the end of the next day, Zateev had evacuated the remaining crew, since remaining on the defective atomic submarine had become extremely dangerous. Until 1990, everything that happened on the submarine remained strictly secret. Even those who replaced Zateev’s crew on K-19 did not know about the accident.

In 1963, the submarine went to sea once again, but it was haunted by both minor problems and more serious accidents. For example, in 1969, whilst entering the White Sea, the submarine came across an American submarine known as Ghetto and barely made it back to the base. On the 24th February 1972, returning from a military mission in the North Atlantic, a fire broke out on the submarine. It started in the ninth compartment, but soon spread to the eighth and tenth. The reasonfor the fire was a rupture in the hydraulics pipe. The sailors who were situated in the central and nose compartments of the submarine did not allow the fire to reach the reactor compartment, but they were unable to prevent the deaths of 28 people.

Six months after repairs on board K19, another fire broke out during diesel work as a result of an explosion in the fuel and paint reserves, brought from the factory for boat repairs. This time there were no victims. They say that sailors on the pier, watching the smoking atom boat entering the harbour surrounded by firefighter boats and tugboats, knowingly exchanged glances and remarked: “Hiroshima has returned”.

By 1978, the boat had been repaired once more and, once all strategic weapons had been removed, it was renamed BS-19. In 1982, during gunfire, a new incident occurred: the body of the boat was penetrated by a torpedo. The crew and the submarine were saved by the fact that it was situated only a few metres below the surface. At the beginning of the 1990s, the submarine was completely excluded from the Northern fleet and sent to Vidyaevo. There, the reactor was removed and the body became a reserve mooring boat, in line for utilization. She finished her maritime century in a utilization dock in 2003. Nikolai Zateev, commander of the submarine, died in 1998.


Translated by Leila Wilmers

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov