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Russian SSBN Sunk To Save It
by James Dunnigan
January 18, 2012

On December 29th the wooden scaffolding surrounding the Russian Delta IV class SSBN (ballistic missile armed nuclear submarine) Yekaterinburg caught fire while it was undergoing maintenance. The wood fire spread to the sound-proofing tiles on the hull and the forward torpedo compartment (where the hull had been removed), and proved impossible to extinguish. The dry dock the sub was in was then flooded, which partially submerged the sub, and this extinguished the fire. There was no damage done to the interior of the boat or to the nuclear reactors on board. Thus there was no release of radiation from the sub's reactors. There were several sailors on board during the incident but they were not injured.

The rubber-like tiles on the hull are a common feature of nuclear subs, as it prevents sounds from inside the sub escaping, which would allow enemy sonar to more easily detect the sub. The Yekaterinburg was in a shipyard outside the northern Russian port of Murmansk. The shipyard director suspected that someone failed to apply fire retardant to the lumber used in the scaffolding. This might have been the result of corruption (someone sold off the fire retardant and pocketed the money). This is the third Russian submarine accident since 2000. The first two killed 138 people. The navy said the damage was repairable and that the Yekaterinburg would return to service. This is essential, as replacement SSBNs have been slow in arriving and the eight remaining Delta IVs will have to remain in service at least another decade.

Entering service in 1986, the 18,000 ton Yekaterinburg was put in dry dock for maintenance in 1996. But money for salaries and materials was short and work dragged on until 1998, when it stopped (as did any funding at all). But in 2001 money was allocated and the work completed. The Yekaterinburg completed sea trials in 2002 and was put back in service for another ten or fifteen years.

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