Victims of Fire on Russian Submarine Averted "Catastrophe"

Artists' depiction of the Losharik (social media)

Published Jul 8, 2019 8:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

The victims of the recent fire aboard a Russian nuclear-powered spy sub helped avert a "planetary catastrophe," according to a top Russian military official.

Speaking at a ceremony for the 14 crewmembers who died in a battery compartment fire on July 1, an unnamed official said that "at the cost of their lives, they saved the lives of their comrades, saved the ship, [and] did not allow a planetary catastrophe," according to Russian outlet Open Media.

Russia's defense ministry has confirmed that the sub was nuclear powered, and the Kremlin asserts that it poses no risk to health and safety. "The nuclear reactor on the vessel is completely isolated," Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said in an official statement last Thursday. "All the necessary measures were taken by the crew to protect the reactor, which is in complete working order." 

If the submarine had been lost, it would have added to a large existing quantity of Russian nuclear waste on the Arctic seabed. Over the span of the Soviet era, Russian forces put at least 14 reactor cores and 17,000 containers of radioactive waste over the side in the Arctic. In addition, the Russian Navy intentionally sank nuclear sub K-27 in the Kara Sea in 1981, lost the manned nuclear attack sub Komsomolets in the Norwegian Sea in 1989 (with two nuclear warheads on board), lost the K-141 Kursk in the Barents Sea in 2000, and lost sub K-159 on a demolition voyage in the Barents Sea in 2003.

The existence of the sub that suffered a fire on July 1 is a state secret, but it is widely believed to be the Losharik, a nuclear-powered, unarmed, ultra-deep-diving submarine built for covert operations. Its capabilities are little known, but the tasks in which its division specializes include tapping underwater communication lines, defending Russia's subsea cables from the spying efforts of other governments, placing or retrieving hardware on the seabed and other secret missions. 

The sub was brought back to port at Severomorsk, and Shoigu said that it will definitely be repaired and returned to service. “Our first assessment shows that repair is possible [and] it is not only possible but absolutely required," he said. "The constructors of the vessel and industry representatives have been engaged in order to estimate the work volume and time needed."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has granted four of the victims the "Hero of Russia" award, the nation's highest honor, and the Order of Courage to the remaining ten.