It’s April 1989, and the state-of-the-art Soviet nuclear sub Komsomolets has been carrying out her duties underwater for more than a month. Currently, in fact, she’s cruising at a depth of 1,250 feet in the Barents Sea, some 200 miles north of Norway. But all is far from well. And the events that unfold on that spring day will leave a terrifying legacy of highly toxic radioactive material on the seabed.
The Komsomolets – which translates as “member of the Young Communist League” – was built in a shipyard in Severodvinsk and made her maiden voyage in 1983. Severodvinsk itself, meanwhile, is located on the White Sea, which in turn borders the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea. And because of its naval ship-building industry, to this day the city in northwestern Russia remains largely closed to foreigners.
Meanwhile, at the time of the Komsomolets’ launch, the Cold War was still being waged. This bitter rivalry between the communist Soviet Union and its supporters and a cadre of Western powers led by the U.S. had by that point been rumbling on for almost four decades. And the Komsomolets was a key part of the arms race that the two blocs pursued.
The Komsomolets was a Project 685 Plavnik submarine – the only one of her type ever to be built, in fact. She had initially been designed to be a kind of prototype vessel for a new generation of Soviet nuclear subs, and when completed she was fully equipped and ready for active cruising and combat.
And on April 7, 1989 – the day the Komsomolets sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea – the submarine had two nuclear weapons aboard containing deadly plutonium. On top of that, there was also the nuclear reactor that powered the vessel. It’s no wonder, then, that experts have dreaded potential leakages of this deadly cargo ever since the sinking.
Interestingly, by 1983 – the year the Komsomolets was launched – nuclear submarines had become one of the principal weapons of choice in the Cold War. It had been the U.S., though, that first developed submarines driven by nuclear reactors. Ross Gunn, a researcher at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, came up with the concept as early as 1939.
But the world’s first nuclear-powered sub wouldn’t actually take to the open seas until January 1955, when the USS Nautilus made her maiden voyage. And one of the principal advantages of a nuclear-powered submarine was that it was able to remain beneath the waves for much more prolonged periods than conventional vessels.
By contrast, diesel-powered subs had to surface quite frequently to replenish their electric batteries. What’s more, the new nuclear vessels were far more capable of traveling underwater anywhere around the globe without being detected. All in all, then, the speed and mobility of the new nuclear subs rendered the radar technology of the WWII era largely ineffective.
And while the Soviet Union was slower out of the blocks than the Americans with its first nuclear-powered sub, it wasn’t by much. The first operational Soviet nuclear submarine arrived in 1957, in fact, in the shape of the K-3 Leninskiy Komsomol. But just like her successor the Komsomolets, this pioneering Soviet vessel met with a disaster that resulted in the loss of many submariners’ lives.
Sailing in the Norwegian Sea in 1967, the Leninskiy Komsomol horrifically caught ablaze. Consequently, the automated fire-fighting system pumped high concentrations of carbon dioxide into the hull, which in turn had the tragic effect of suffocating many of the Soviet sailors on board. The death toll eventually reached 39. And as we’ll see a little later, there are some chilling parallels with the disaster that befell the Komsomolets in 1989.
Meanwhile, after the U.S.’ development of nuclear-powered submarines had given it an early advantage in the Cold War, the next obvious step was to arm the vessels with nuclear weapons. And it was again the Americans who were to first reach the milestone. They were able to steal a march on the Soviets with the USS George Washington, which was equipped with Polaris warheads.
The George Washington first went out on patrol in November 1960. Then, just a year afterwards, the Soviets followed suit by putting their own nuclear-armed submarine in service. This vessel was the K-19 – and she was yet another Soviet craft that met with catastrophe. Indeed, 11 people were killed in accidents during her construction – so, before the sub had even launched.
But worse was to come. In 1961 the K-19’s crew was exposed to high radiation levels owing to a reactor system failure. Then, over the two years that followed, 17 submariners lost their lives as a result of radiation poisoning. And while the ill-starred vessel was subsequently repaired and returned to service, she would ultimately be the site of yet more tragedy, as a fire aboard the sub in 1972 would lead to the deaths of 30 more crewmen.
By tradition, mariners are notoriously superstitious. And after all these accidents, it’s said that sailors nicknamed the K-19 “Hiroshima.” Even her launch had been singularly inauspicious. A man rather than the traditional woman had been chosen to break a bottle of champagne on the boat. Yet the bottle rebounded off the hull’s rubber covering intact, which was regarded as a bad omen at the time – and that had gone on to be the case.
So, by the early 1960s, both the Soviets and the Americans had submarines sailing in the depths of the world’s oceans that were armed with nuclear weapons and powered by nuclear reactors. Both sides also continued to refine and develop their nuclear submarine capabilities. And it was in that context that the Soviets commissioned the Komsomolets.
In 1966, you see, the Soviets initiated an advanced nuclear submarine development program that was given the name of Project 685. The corresponding specification called for a vessel that could carry torpedoes and cruise missiles armed with either nuclear or orthodox payloads. And in 1974 the design work was completed, leaving shipbuilders to lay the keel of the Komsomolets – the first step in her construction – in the spring of 1978.
During building of the sub at Severodvinsk – the biggest shipyard in the world – the Komsomolets was known only as K-278. The vessel had a double hull partly constructed out of titanium, and she ultimately came to 400 feet long, 27 feet across and 37 feet tall.
That titanium hull enabled the K-278, moreover, to dive to unheard-of depths – much lower than U.S. submarines of the time, in fact. Her operating level was some 3,000 feet, although she was even recorded as having attained a depth of 3,350 feet. And although K-278 was essentially a test model, she did still go on regular patrols.
K-278’s inner hull was divided, meanwhile, into seven sections. Compartments numbers two and three were designated as a safety area, with the bulkheads there having been specially strengthened. These two berths were designed as a place of refuge for the crew in the event of an emergency aboard the sub. And, unfortunately, the vessel would indeed encounter such a situation.
Plus, part of Project 658’s brief had been to design a vessel with many automated features to enable crew numbers to be kept to a minimum. And with that in mind, the complement of the sub was indeed lower than may have been expected for a craft of her scale. The standard crew roster consisted of 12 petty officers and ordinary sailors, 30 officers and 22 warrant officers – a total of 64 men.
But while most Soviet submarines were known only by their letters and numbers, K-278 was given the rare distinction of a proper moniker: Komsomolets. The Americans and their NATO allies, by contrast, dubbed the vessel “Mike.” NATO had initially conceived of Mike as the name for an entire class of submarines, as the organization’s members assumed that many of these advanced vessels would be added to the Soviet Navy in due course. As we’ve heard, though, Komsomolets remained the sole member of her class.
And as we now know, calamity struck the Komsomolets and her crew on April 7, 1989. At shortly after 11:00 a.m. on that day, she had been cruising at a depth of 1,250 feet through the Norwegian Sea. Her position was around 100 miles from the remote Norwegian territory of Bear Island, and she’d left port 39 days earlier.
Then, just moments after Seaman Nodari Bukhnikashvili had reported that everything at the sub’s stern was as it should be, an important airline cracked. Suddenly, things were not at all as they should be. A shower of hot oil subsequently ignited, and a fierce fire fueled by the oxygen from the broken pipe broke out.
Instruments in the sub’s control room then showed a sudden temperature spike in compartment seven. But there was no response when the duty engineer, Captain Third Rank Vyacheslav Yudin, tried to contact Bukhnikashvili via the intercom. That worrying state of affairs left the vessel’s commander, Captain First Rank Yevgeniy Vanin, to rush to the control room. And there, Vanin’s fellow submariners recommended that the captain should release fire-extinguishing freon gas into compartment seven.
But Vanin hesitated to give the order. You see, the freon wouldn’t only put the blaze out, but it would also asphyxiate Seaman Bukhnikashvili. As it happened, though, the unfortunate sailor had already become the first of the crew to die, having been killed by the intense flames. And now the fire was out of control, beginning to spread along cable ducts to other compartments.
The Komsomolets’ automated safety mechanisms thus started to operate, shutting down systems. Fearful of a catastrophic meltdown, the officer in charge of the reactor also cut the power to the sub altogether. As a result, then, the Komsomolets lost the thrust of her propeller. And at 11.13 a.m. the vessel was stuck at a depth of 500 feet with no drive force and no control over the rudder.
By repeatedly voiding the submarine’s tanks, however, Vanin succeeded in nursing the vessel to the surface, after which he sent a specially coded distress message. Still, the inferno in the submarine’s hull continued to blaze. And owing to the fire, all crew not directly involved in repair attempts were therefore ordered on deck.
Yet as the minutes ticked away, there was still no hope in sight, leaving Vanin to broadcast a non-secure SOS plea at 12:19 p.m. And while the men on the deck were exposed to freezing temperatures, they nevertheless clung on for dear life. A few hours later, however, the Komsomolets had started to sink. Some of the crew thus boarded life rafts, but many would subsequently drown or succumb to exposure while waiting for rescue.
As the Komsomolets plunged further downwards, then, six men remained aboard, including Vanin. Fortunately, five of the submariners ultimately managed to reach the escape pod and clamber inside. Yet although the mechanism to the pod was eventually triggered, just one of the five aboard left the depths with his life. The others – Vanin among them – plummeted thousands of feet to their certain deaths on the seabed.
And those left on the sea surface fared little better, as the icy temperature of the water would prove too much for some. Finally, though, 81 minutes after the Komsomolets disappeared beneath the waves, a fishing vessel named the Aleksey Khlobystov arrived on the scene and picked up 30 survivors from the original crew of 69. The immediate death toll was 39, while three more men would pass away shortly afterwards.
But what of the Komsomolets herself? Well, as we noted earlier, the submarine had two nuclear warheads aboard as well as the nuclear reactor. Understandably, then, the Soviets consequently came under intense diplomatic pressure from Norway and other countries to try to recover this highly hazardous material. The potential for lethal pollution of the ocean was all too clear.
Eventually, the Soviets sent the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh – a scientific vessel equipped with deep-sea craft – to the location of the wreck. And some eight weeks after the disaster, the Keldysh located the stricken submarine on the seabed at a depth of almost 6,000 feet. According to the Soviets, though, the vessel posed little risk of causing serious damage to the ocean.
Then the Keldysh revisited the wreck site in 1991, with crew members going on to use remote-camera equipment to film inside the Komsomolets. And after doing so, researchers ultimately decided that while radiation pollution was at low levels in the area, further surveys were nonetheless essential. However, a year after that, the Soviets discovered that there were holes – some as wide as 16 inches – right across the sub’s titanium shell. Again, though, it was claimed that there was only a low chance of radioactive material spreading through the Norwegian Sea.
But in 1994 the Russians released a much more alarming report asserting that plutonium from the Komsomolets’ warheads had in fact leaked out. Over the next two years, then, further expeditions were carried out to seal some of the cracks in the submarine’s hull and to cover the nuclear weapons. Thankfully, these procedures were successful, leading Russian authorities to maintain that there would be little danger of further pollution before at least 2015.
So, the wreck was subsequently left to rust at the bottom of the Norwegian Sea. And when the Norwegians later took samples of seawater in the area, they happily reported no evidence of radioactive contamination. In July 2019, however, another exploratory expedition was mounted by a Russian-Norwegian team to check on the status of the Komsomolets.
A press release issued by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research in July 2019 made for sobering reading, too. The institute reported, you see, that the radiation reading at one spot on the wreck was a hair-raising 800,000 times higher than the background level in the Norwegian Sea. Nevertheless, the research team’s leader, Hilde Elise Heldal, clarified matters, saying, “We took water samples from inside this particular duct because the Russians had documented leaks here both in the 1990s and more recently in 2007. So we weren’t surprised to find high levels [of radiation] here.”
And Heldal had further words of reassurance. “What we have found during our survey has very little impact on Norwegian fish and seafood,” she pointed out. “In general, cesium levels in the Norwegian Sea are very low, and as the wreck is so deep, the pollution from Komsomolets is quickly diluted.” Heldal added, though, that it was crucial for monitoring of the wreck to continue.
It’s a relief, too, to know that the sea off Norway is safe – at least for now. And it should also be noted that submarine wrecks don’t always have such potentially catastrophic consequences. Evidence of that comes in the fate of the French sub Souffleur, which was in the hands of the Nazi-backed collaborationist Vichy government during WWII. In 1941 the British submarine HMS Parthian sank the Souffleur off the coast of Lebanon with the loss of 52 hands; only four crew members survived by swimming ashore.
Now, the Souffleur lies in about 130 feet of water some three miles due west of the Lebanese capital Beirut. And far from being a scary possible source of radioactivity like the Komsomolets, the site has instead become a destination for advanced divers. Apparently, a dive at this well-preserved wreck is a magical experience, with marine life such as sting rays, morays and groupers swimming around the rusting and seaweed-bedecked former vessel.
So, for the moment, the highly dangerous radioactive material sitting 5,575 feet below the surface of the Norwegian Sea doesn’t appear to be an immediate danger to marine or human life. And we can only hope that this will continue to be the case, as the consequences of nuclear material leaking into the waters would surely be devastating.