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Deadly Secrets
by James Dunnigan
April 14, 2013

For more than a decade now Russia has been restoring the heavy security on military matters that characterized the Soviet period (1921-91). But many naval officers are protesting the heavy-handed security because in the past that has meant that details of naval mishaps were not distributed and that prevented experienced sailors from making suggestions that could prevent the same problem from causing another bad accident. This syndrome was particularly harmful when it came to nuclear submarines.

For a long time the Soviets did not even admit to the public when a nuclear sub was lost. This changed, shortly before the Soviet Union fell apart. The first public announcement of a sub loss was in 1986, when the public was told that the K-219 had sunk in the Atlantic. Earlier losses were not made public until the 1990s when, for a few years, the government granted unprecedented access to many of its archives. It was during this period that the public found out about the 1983 sinking of the submarine K-429 in the Pacific. Many naval officers, after seeing these records for the first time in the 1990s, noted that the lack of openness led to design and operational flaws in the nuclear submarine force being noted in accident reports but not resulting in many changes (because of secrecy).

Some Russian nuclear subs had so many accidents, often involving the same systems, that their crews truly considered them cursed. For example, Russia's first SSBN (ballistic missile submarine), the K-19, was finally sent to a shipyard for decommissioning and dismantling in 2002 after a long, disaster filled, career. Many sailors considered that dismantling long overdue. The K-19's tribulations began on its 1961 maiden voyage and were so horrendous that the details did get out, and a movie was actually made about it. In that movie one sailor was heard to call the K-19 "cursed." He was right. The K-19 went on to suffer so many mishaps that sailors nicknamed the boat "Hiroshima."

Eight sailors died in the 1961 incident from radiation sickness. In 1969, K-19 collided with an American sub in the Barents Sea. In 1972, an onboard fire killed 28 of the crew. There were also fires in 1978 and 1982, but no one died in those. There were numerous other minor incidents. K-19 was taken out of active service in 1990, and docked at a remote Pacific base for over a decade.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the Soviet Union fell apart, that the world was told how horrendous the Soviet nuclear submarine program had been. Before the 1990s, all most people knew details about was the American nuclear submarine program, which was the best run and safest on the planet. This began back in 1952, with the construction of the first nuclear powered sub, the USS Nautilus. Completed in 1955, the Nautilus served until 1980, at which point it became a museum ship.

Since the Nautilus, over 400 nuclear subs have been built, most of them (over 60 percent) Russian. As was their custom the Russians went for quantity rather than quality. As a result of this, some 80 percent of those Russian boats have since been retired. Not only did Russian subs wear out quickly but they were not able to get to sea as often as their Western counterparts. When they did get to sea they had more problems with radiation and reactor reliability.

The realization of how dangerous (to everyone) Russia's nuclear submarine fleet was led to an international effort to safely decommission over a hundred obsolete, worn out, defective, or broken down Russian nuclear subs. This effort has been going on for nearly a decade and was driven by the Russian threat to just sink their older nuclear subs in the Arctic Ocean. That might work with conventional ships but there was an international uproar over what would happen with all those nuclear reactors sitting on the ocean floor forever. Russia generously offered to accept donations to fund a dismantling program that included safe disposal (of the nuclear reactors).

The current Russian fleet of nuclear subs is tiny, and the Russians would rather keep them tied up at dock most of the time. The crews can do a lot of training at dockside and only go to sea a few times a year, to check on their state of training. Given the number of accidents their subs have had in the past decade, the training the crews are getting now is not sufficient.

Only the U.S. and Britain were able to build nuclear subs that could stay at sea regularly and for long periods. French nukes were nearly as reliable but the Chinese built nuclear boats have, so far, been of lower quality than three decade old Russian designs. India is also in the midst of getting its first generation nuclear subs operational, and it has been rough going.

While nuclear subs are a much feared weapon, they have gone sixty years with only one instance of combat. That was in 1982, when a British SSN sunk an Argentinian cruiser (the former World War II era USS Phoenix). Nuclear subs have been much more active in espionage work. While not as flashy as sinking other ships, it is dangerous, demanding, and rewarding work. Most of these efforts during the Cold War are still secret.

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