K-19 Submarine Tragedy Caused by Lack of Knowledge

The Soviet Union fixed its nuclear reactors at the price of human lives

The presentation of the American blockbuster “K-19. The Widowmaker” is over. The movie starring Harrison Ford has been shown in cinemas across Russia. It seems that almost all Russian and Soviet submariners accept the certain rough edges of its plot. The word “almost” is an important in this sentence. The controversy continues.

The Russian website Shipbuilding.Ru handed over a unique article to PRAVDA.Ru for publication yesterday. The article was accompanied with the following letter: “You can place this article on your site. The story was written by Alexander Pokrovsky. He is the author of two novels “Shoot” and “Shoot 2.” After the premier of the movie K-19, we asked him to write an article about this submarine. Here is what he presented us with.”

Russian submariners nicknamed this submarine “Hiroshima.” We would like to add here that Alexander Pokrovsky is a former chief of the nuclear submarine chemical service.

“I was asked to tell the story of the K-19 submarine. My story is not going to be boring. In my work, I used personal notes of Mr. Zateyev, the first commander of K-19.

“The K-19 is referred to the first generation of nuclear cruisers. They started being used in 1961. A nuclear submarine of that time could stay at sea for only 30 days due to technical reasons. As a matter of fact, submarines could travel for only ten to fifteen days due to poor steam-generation units. Those units would always leak. The reactors’ lids were not good either. The second generation of nuclear submarines were equipped with better steam-generators and better reactors. They were made of special carbonaceous steel, which finally put an end to all those leaks.

Numerous breakdowns made those first generation reactors stronger, so to speak. Practice made it possible for a first generation nuclear sub to travel for 30, 40, 45 days. It became possible later. Back in those years, radiation was a mystery. Both submariners and even academicians knew little about it. Academician Alexandrov, for instance, did not wish to put a safety costume on, when he arrived to examine K-19 after the breakdown. He did not want to take a radiation monitor along: “Take this bullshit away,” he said to the chemists who were on radiation guard near the submarine. The K-19 was polluted with a high level of radiation. There was a lot of radioactive dirt on the captain’s keys; the monitor’s scale was not enough to measure the radiation level.

“Academician Alexandrov did not watch his language when he talked about radiation and the affect that it has on people. You can imagine what the submariners thought about it, taking into consideration the fact that radiation is not visible and its impact on the human body might show later. Submariners sometimes used distant sites of their first generation submarines for smoking, because there was no special smoking room on those subs. Some of them even slept there at times, since it was too stuffy in cabins. A reactor compartment always had fresh air in, because it was ionized with radiation. It often happened that an officer, who preferred to sleep in a reactor compartment, would lose his eyesight, but it would happen only later. We were taught that there could be two attitudes to radiation: either fear, or total ignorance.

“There were many stories told about the K-19 submarine. The description of the breakdown that happened on board the sub was different than what captain Zateyev wrote in his notes. Despite my great respect of this person, I have to say that all commanders of those years were not really good with reactor equipment. There were dialogues like this: “What kind of neutrons are there in our reactor?” – “Slow ones!” – “Start using fast ones now!” This is not a joke. Such commands were common for the 1960s. People did not know a lot about the subject at that time. Practice was obtained gradually, from victims and breakdowns.

“The K-19 had the following compartments: the first one – the torpedo compartment, the second one was the storage battery, the third one was the central post, the fourth was the missile compartment, the fifth was the diesel compartment, the sixth was the reactor compartment, the seventh was the turbine compartment, the eighth was the electrotechnological compartment, the ninth was the compartment of emergency equipment, and the tenth was the dwelling compartment.

“The breakdown happened in the reactor compartment on the 16th day at sea. It was reported to the commander that the pressure in the reactor dropped to zero. The trouble was caused with a leak of a pulse pipe in the reactor compartment. The pulse pipe was connected to a pressure gauge in the pump compartment. The pressure gauge indicated the pressure in the first circuit, where the pulse pipe was.

“People started panicking. Everyone was running around without an idea of what to do. It did not occur to anyone that the pumps still worked, that the temperature in the first circuit did not change drastically. It was decided to pump water through the cooling system of the electric engine. The submariners were sure that there was no pressure at all in the first circuit. They thought it wrong. An explosion happened. Water turned into steam immediately, and the blast wave damaged a part of the deck-cabin. The people who were exposed to steam were also exposed to radiation. In addition, the steam burnt their skin.

“This was the way the breakdown was described during numerous analyses. Academician Alexandrov saved the crew of the submarine from the criminal persecution. Soviet officials wanted to find the guilty people and to punish them. That was their major goal.

“People say that there was a leak of uranium, which was then accumulated on the bottom of the reactor. I am drawn to believe this version. There was no water in the reactor, and the temperature was too high. Pumping water might result in an explosion that would damage the reactor’s lid.

“The details of the breakdown are not relevant at the moment, I think. The navy amended its nuclear reactors at the price of human lives. A submarine is a very complicated mechanism, and people’s deaths helped to find out how it works. The K-19’s troubles were not over after that breakdown. Its reactor was removed and then substituted with another one. The submarine was repaired and it went to sea again. Later, it ran into a NATO submarine (without any victims). There was also a large fire on board the K-19. The fire destroyed two compartments (the eighth and the ninth), and 28 people died. After the fire was extinguished, the submarine surfaced, and it was pulled to the base. When at the base, there were ten living people found in the tenth compartment of the submarine. They were waiting to be rescued for many days and nights. This is all I know about the long-suffering K-19 submarine of the Northern Navy.”

Alexander Pokrovsky Especially for PRAVDA.Ru

Translated by Dmitry Sudakov

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