Soviet Submarine K-19 (continued)

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


June 2, 2011

 Soviet Submarine K-19 (continued)

          (When last we saw Soviet Nuclear Submarine K-19 – see Blog entry of 8 March 2011- she was on patrol in the Barents Sea, cruising at a depth of 300 feet. She is 1500 miles from home, and has just completed sea trials testing her twin nuclear reactors, one each powering the port and starboard screws. The date is July 4, 1961, and her assigned mission is to conduct a mock nuclear missile attack on the Soviet Union from beneath the sea. On the late watch at 0415 hours, Engineering Officer Lt. Yuri Povstyev, in charge of the reactors, has observed coolant pressure in the starboard reactor loop drop to zero; he diagnoses failure of the main coolant pumps. Alarms sound all over the ship. The crew of 139 now knows that this Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA) can lead to overheating and meltdown of the core and the loss of all lives onboard.)

        Roused from sleep by the alarms, Captain Zatayevimmediately orders both reactors to SCRAM, leaving the boat drifting powerless

K-19 Surface Running

at a depth of 300 feet. But due to decay heating, temperature inside the core fuel rods continues to rise, and is approaching 1470° F, at which point the center rods will begin to melt. The core must be kept cool or they are all doomed.

          By 0600, the Captain blows ballast to surface the boat and radio for assistance. But after surfacing, they discover the long-range radio transmission antennas are not functioning – there will be no call for help and no assistance.

          The core must be cooled. In desperation, the Captain summons the crew metalworkers, and requests some volunteers to weld a connection from the ships water supply into the main reactor coolant loop. Perhaps pumping ship’s drinking water into the core will control the heating. This welding crew must work in a very high radiation field in Compartment Six, beside the reactor core, and the Captain knows they may not survive. This could become a suicide mission.

          In the early morning, eight men enter the reactor compartment and begin rigging a connection. An air valve is cut open, releasing fission products into the compartment air, which is quickly sucked into the sub ventilation system, spreading radiation throughout many other compartments. Ionized Hydrogen is ignited by the welding torches and blue flame shoots from the pipe into compartment air. The crew is only wearing white chemical coveralls since there are no “suits” which can protect against radiation.

          Finally the connection is made and cooling water begins to be pumped into the core. Men have worked in the high radiation field for several hours and some now begin to show the symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome. Faces turn red and swollen, men stagger from the compartment vomiting colored bile. White cell counts are plummeting. Then the connection springs a leak! Some must re-enter to plug the leak in the piping and are exposed for several more hours.

          After more time, the cooling water seems to be bringing down the core temperature. All modern reactors are designed with backup cooling. The Fukushima reactors had three systems in-depth, all of which were destroyed by an overwhelming tsunami. There was no backup cooling installed in the K-19. Captain Zatayev had argued vehemently for this engineering change, to no avail. The Commissars were in a desperate hurry to one-up the American devils, and this safety precaution was simply ignored. Now men’s lives were on the line.

           The Captain later was to write in his memoirs:

 “ … operating vessels that had to return from the sea because of technical malfunctions was positively shameful…I had argued quite vocally that we should first build one or two experimental subs, perfect all their systems and equipment to the point that we could guarantee their reliability, and only then launch serial production. But nothing doing. We continued building ships that were not combat worthy… (page 107).

           Eight of the repair crew become critically ill with radiation sickness, and are already dying. All will perish within one to two weeks. It is later estimated they suffered radiation exposure to the whole body between 5,000 and 6,000 rem. A whole body dose of 450 rem is sufficient to kill 50% of those exposed. Exposure above 650 rem is almost always fatal.

          Home port is 1500 miles away. More crew will die if they try to make such a long journey. There is a nearby NATO naval base and the crew urges the Captain to sail there for help. He refuses and orders all firearms on the boat to be collected and thrown overboard. Several American vessels in the vicinity hear short-range transmissions, and offer help. Zatayev refuses. He decides to gamble on reaching some diesel Soviet subs some ten hours to the south, below the Arctic circle. After a long interval of sailing, nothing is sighted. In despair, he orders the boat to turn around and sail north again and retires to his cabin. A few minutes later S-270, a Soviet diesel boat, is sighted on the horizon.

          K-19 is taken in tow by S-270.  Some 200 ft away, the rescue boat measures radiation levels of 9 rem/hour when the dying men are transferred. Even after dumping their contaminated clothing overboard, levels of ½ rem above background are measured. The dying men’s bodies have become radioactive from exposure to neutron radiation while working in Compartment Six.

          Within a few days seamen begin to die. Captains log for July 10 shows Lt. Korchilov, Petty Officer Ordochkin and Kashenkov perish. July 12 Seaman Savkin. July 13, Seaman Kharitonov. On the 15th, Seaman Penkov. Some others are saved by bone marrow transplants and continuous blood transfusions.

          The crew must suffer one final irony after arriving at home port. Their diagnosis and appeal for disability is labeled “asthenic vegetative syndrome”, which was a type of mental disorder. Their appeals were then denied. In the USSR, it was forbidden for anyone to contract radiation sickness. Such things could not happen in Soviet Union.

          When K-19 was tied up to her dock, soon the dock and surrounding waters were contaminated to a distance of 900 yards around. An investigation attributed the failure of the sub cooling system to faulty welding techniques in the primary reactor loop, causing microcracks in the piping system. The K-19 was decontaminated and returned to service, but ever after in the fleet, she was known by a nickname awarded her by her crew: ”Hiroshima”…

 (to be continued …)


5 Responses to “Soviet Submarine K-19 (continued)”

  1. Emily D. Says:

    Are you still intending on continuing the K-19 story? I’m researching it for an essay I’m writing for school, and your retelling of the story has an incredible amount of information that I would love to use. That is, if it’s okay for me to quote some of your work, I hope?

    • Charles Glassmire Says:

      Thank you for your comments on the post. I hope to return to the K-19 episode.

      I cannot verify the veracity of the incident. I try to follow good journalistic standards and find two sources for each thing I report, but I cannot always meet that standard. Use at your own risk.

      I allow your use of what I published providing you send me some more information. What is your interest in K-19? Please send me your name, school, address etc simply because I am interested in who is reading.

      Thank you. Charles Glassmire

  2. Stephen Says:

    Your way of telling all in this article is actually pleasant, every one can effortlessly know it, Thanks a lot.

  3. link homepage Says:

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    Soviet Submarine K-19 (continued) | Tales from the Nuclear Age

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