Soviet submarine K-19

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Career (USSR)
Name: K-19
Laid down: 17 October 1958
Launched: 8 April 1959
Completed: 12 November 1960
Commissioned: 30 April 1961
Decommissioned: 19 April 1990
Nickname: Hiroshima
Fate: Recycled at Naval Yard 85 Nerpa.
General characteristics
Class & type: Hotel-class submarine
Displacement: 4,030 long tons (4,095 t) (surfaced)
5,000 long tons (5,080 t) (submerged)
Length: 114 m (374 ft 0 in)
Beam: 9.2 m (30 ft 2 in)
Draft: 7.1 m (23 ft 4 in)
Propulsion: 2 × 70 MW VM-A reactors, 2 geared turbines, 2 shafts, 39,200 shp (29 MW)
Speed: 15 kn (28 km/h; 17 mph) (surfaced)
26 kn (48 km/h; 30 mph) (submerged)
Range: 35,700 mi (57,500 km) at 26 kn (30 mph; 48 km/h)
32,200 mi (51,800 km) at 24 kn (28 mph; 44 km/h) (80% power)
Endurance: 60 days (limited by food, and physical health)
Test depth: 250 m (820 ft) (test)
300 m (980 ft) (design)
Complement: 125 officers and men
Armament: 3 × R-13 nuclear SRBM (650 km range) as a Hotel I
3 × R-21 nuclear MRBM (1300 km range) as a Hotel II
4 × 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes forward
2 × 16 in (406 mm) tubes forward
2 × 16 in (406 mm) tubes aft

K-19 was one of the first two Soviet submarines of the 658 class (NATO reporting name Hotel-class submarine), the first generation nuclear submarine equipped with nuclear ballistic missiles, specifically the R-13 SLBM. Due to the large number of accidents during its construction and service life, it gained an unofficial nickname "Hiroshima" among naval sailors and officers.[1] Over its service life, it ran 332,396 miles during 20,223 working hours.

Nuclear accident[edit]

Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev, commander of the submarine at the time of the nuclear accident

On 4 July 1961, under the command of Captain First Rank Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev, K-19 was conducting exercises in the North Atlantic close to Southern Greenland when it developed a major leak in its reactor coolant system, causing the water pressure in the aft reactor to drop to zero and causing failure of the coolant pumps. A separate accident had disabled the long-range radio system, so they could not contact Moscow. Despite the control rods being inserted via SCRAM mechanism, the reactor temperature rose uncontrollably because of continuing chain reactions causing disintegration heat, reaching 800 °C (1,470 °F). The reactor continued to heat up as coolant is still required during shutdown until the reactions decrease. Despite Zateyev's and others' earlier requests, no backup cooling system had been installed.

As a cooling back-up system had not been installed, Zateyev made a drastic decision; a team of eight engineering officers and crew worked for extended periods in high-radiation areas to implement a new coolant system by cutting off an air vent valve and welding a water-supplying pipe into it. The released radioactive steam, containing fission products, was drawn into the ventilation system and spread to other sections of the ship. Fortunately, the cooling water pumped from the reactor section worked well.

The incident contaminated/irradiated the crew, parts of the ship, and some of the ballistic missiles carried on board; the entire crew received substantial doses of radiation. All seven men in the repair crew and their divisional officer died of radiation exposure within the month. Fifteen more would die within the next two years.[2] The captain decided to head south to meet diesel submarines expected to be there, instead of continuing on the mission's planned route. Worries about a potential crew mutiny prompted Zateyev to have all small arms thrown overboard except for five pistols distributed to his most trusted officers. A diesel submarine, S-270, picked up K-19's low-power distress transmissions and joined up with it.

American warships nearby had also heard the transmission and offered to help, but Zateyev, afraid of giving away Soviet military secrets to the West, refused and sailed to meet the S-270. Its crew was evacuated, and the boat was towed to the home base; after landing, the vessel contaminated a zone within 700 m (2,300 ft). The damaged reactors were removed and replaced, a process which took two years. During this time, there was further radiation poisoning of the environment and the workers involved. The original compartment was dumped into the Kara Sea.[3]

The official explanation of the disaster is, that during the repair process it was discovered that the catastrophe had been caused by a drop from a welding electrode, that had fallen into the first cooling circuit of the aft reactor during the initial construction[citation needed]. However, this is disputed. According to retired Rear-Admiral Nikolai Mormul, when the reactor was first started ashore, no pressure gauge had been connected to the first cooling circuit. By the time somebody realized what was happening, the pipes had been subjected to a pressure of 400 atmospheres; double the acceptable limit[citation needed]. Checking the pipes would have been costly and reporting the negligence would have hurt the career of Captain Zateyev, who preferred to hide the fact[citation needed]. K-19 returned to the fleet, now having acquired the additional nickname "Hiroshima".

On 1 February 2006, former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev proposed in a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee that the crew of K-19 be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their actions on 4 July 1961.[4] In late March 2006, Nikolai Zateyev was formally nominated for the award.

List of crew members who died after the accident on 4 July 1961[edit]

Several crew members received fatal doses of radiation during repairs on the reserve coolant system of Reactor #8. All of them died between one and three weeks after the accident from severe radiation sickness.

Name Rank Dose of radiation Date of death
Korchilov, BorisBoris Korchilov Lieutenant 54 Sv (Sievert)[A 1] = 5400 rem [A 2] 10 July 1961
Ryzhikov, BorisBoris Ryzhikov Starshina, ChiefChief Starshina 8.6 Sv = 720 röntgen 25 July 1961
Ordochkin, YuriyYuriy Ordochkin Starshina, Starshina, 1st class 11 Sv = 990 röntgen 10 July 1961
Kashenkov, EvgenyEvgeny Kashenkov Starshina, Starshina, 2nd class 10 Sv = 845 röntgen 10 July 1961
Penkov, SemyonSemyon Penkov Seaman 10 Sv = 890 röntgen 18 July 1961
Savkin, NicolaiNicolai Savkin Seaman 11 Sv = 930 röntgen 13 July 1961
Charitonov, ValeryValery Charitonov Seaman 11 Sv = 935 röntgen 15 July 1961
Povstyev, YuriyYuriy Povstyev Captain Lieutenant,
Commander of the division of movement
7.5 Sv = 629 röntgen 22 July 1961
  1. ^ Convert from Roentgen (R) to rad or from Roentgen (R) to rem?
  2. ^ СУБМАРИНА, СБЕРЕГШАЯ МИР TPYд. 21 November 2002. (Russian)

Many other crew members also received doses of radiation exceeding permissible levels. They underwent medical treatment during the following year. The treatment was devised by Professor Z. Volynskiy and included bone marrow transplantation and blood transfusion. It saved, among others, Chief Lieutenant Mikhail Krasichkov and Captain 3rd class Vladimir Yenin, who had received doses of radiation that were otherwise considered deadly. For reasons of secrecy the official diagnosis was not "radiation sickness" but "astheno-vegetative syndrome". This deliberate misdiagnosis meant that the surviving crew members had problems in obtaining future employment.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Soviet naval officer Vasiliy Arkhipov – at the time of the nuclear accident on 4 July 1961, he was the executive officer to the Commander, Nikolai Zateyev. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo and thereby prevented a nuclear war. Thomas Blanton (then director of the National Security Archive) said in 2002 that "a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world".[1]


At 07:13 on 15 November 1969, K-19 collided with the attack submarine USS Gato in the Barents Sea at a depth of 60 m (200 ft). It was able to surface by means of an emergency main ballast tank blow. The impact completely destroyed the bow sonar systems and mangled the covers of the forward torpedo tubes. K-19 was again repaired and returned to the fleet.


On 24 February 1972, a fire broke out on board K-19 while the submarine was at a depth of 120 m (390 ft), some 1,300 km (700 nmi; 810 mi) from Newfoundland, in Canada. A total of 28 sailors died in the fire, caused by hydraulic fluid leaking onto a hot filter. The boat surfaced, and surface warships evacuated the crew, except for 12 men trapped in the aft torpedo room. Towing was delayed by a gale, and the aft torpedo room could not be reached because of conditions in the engine room. After the gale abated, the boat was towed to Severomorsk on 4 April, and the men were rescued after surviving 24 days in the lightless, heatless torpedo room. The rescue operation lasted more than 40 days and involved over 30 ships. K-19 was again repaired and returned to the fleet.


The submarine was decommissioned in 1990, and was transferred in 1994 to the naval repair yard at Polyarny. In March 2002, it was towed to the Nerpa Shipyard, Snezhnogorsk, Murmansk, to be scrapped. It was announced in October 2003 that scrapping would start soon.

In 2006, the K-19 was purchased by Vladimir Romanov, who once served on the sub as a conscript, with the intention of "Turning it into a Moscow-based meeting place to build links between submarine veterans from Russia and other countries." So far, the plans remain on hold, and many of K-19's survivors have objected to them.[5]


  • 16 October 1957 Ordered by the Soviet Navy.[6]
  • 17 October 1958 Laid down at the naval yard in Severodvinsk as a main nuclear submarine cruiser equipped with ballistic missiles.
  • 1959 Three people die as a result of a fire that broke out during the construction of the ballast tanks.
  • 11 October 1959 Launching ceremony and christening. Champagne bottle thrown by Captain 3rd Rank V. V. Panov of the 5th Urgent Unit slides along the screws and bounces off the rubber-coated hull without breaking. Many view this as a sign of bad luck.
  • January 1960 Confusion during a watch change causes the crew to bend a reactor-control rod. The damage is so extensive that the reactor requires dismantling for repairs. As a result, responsible officers are removed from their post and Captain Panov is demoted one rank.
  • 30 April 1960 Commissioned.
  • 12 July 1960 The submarine's ensign is hoisted for the first time.
  • 13 through 17 July 1960 First sea trials.
  • 12 August through 8 November 1960 Conducted several sea trials over a total course of 10,779 miles. The rubber coating on the hull is found to have mostly fallen off after surfacing from a submerged full-power run, requiring a total repainting of the boat. During a test dive to the maximum depth of 300 m (980 ft), water leaks in the reactor compartment and causes the crew to do an emergency surfacing. The boat jumps out of the water dangerously close to its supply ship.
  • October 1960 Wooden planks removed from crates containing equipment are disposed of through the galley's waste system, clogging it. This causes flooding to the 9th compartment, which subsequently fills one third full with water.
  • 12 November 1960 The boat is commissioned and Captain 2nd Rank Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev becomes the first commander of the submarine.
  • December 1960 First independent operation. Loss of coolant causes failure of the main circuit pump. Specialists called from Severodvinsk manage to repair it at sea in a week.
  • 1961 While missiles are being loaded, a hatch cover slams shut and kills a sailor.
  • 3 and 4 July 1961 The nuclear accident. See Nuclear accident.
  • 6 August 1961 26 members of the crew are awarded decorations for courage and valor shown while dealing with the accident.
  • 14 December 1961 Upgraded to the Hotel II (658м) variant, which upgraded the missiles to the R-21 having twice the effective range of the earlier missiles.
  • 15 November 1969 Collision with USS Gato. See Collision.
  • 24 February 1972 A fire takes the lives of 28 sailors and 2 more while on board rescue ships. See Fire.
  • 15 June through 5 November 1972 Repaired quickly and put back into service.
  • November 1972 Another fire breaks out. No casualties.
  • 25 July 1977 Reclassified as a Large Submarine.
  • 15 November 1978 Fire in compartment 6. No casualties. Extinguished by the chemical fire-extinguisher system.
  • 26 July 1979 Reclassified as a communications submarine and given the symbol KS-19 (КС-19).
  • 15 August 1982 Due to electrical short circuit, two sailors received burns of varying degrees. Sailor V. A. Kravchuk dies in a hospital on 20 August 1982.
  • 28 November 1985 Upgraded to the 658s (658с) variant.
  • 19 April 1990 Decommissioned.
  • March 2002 A US film studio tries to secure the boat as a set for its production, but the Russian Navy declines.
  • August 2003 The crew makes its last visit to the boat in Polyarny city, after which the hull is scrapped, save for the sail (left for the purpose of forming a burial site for fallen crew members).

Popular culture[edit]

The movie K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, is based on the story of the K-19's first disaster.[7] "The Widowmaker" nickname was used only in the movie. In real life, the submarine had no nickname until the nuclear accident on 4 July 1961, when she got her actual nickname "Hiroshima".[8]


  1. ^ «Own truth» (September 2003) (Russian)
  2. ^ "Epilogue: Tragedy Upon Tragedy". K-19: The History. National Geographic. Retrieved May 5, 2011. 
  3. ^ Polmar, Norman (2003). Cold War Submarines. The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines. Potomac Books, Inc. p. 112. ISBN 1-57488-530-8. 
  4. ^ " Оружие: К-19 – достойная награда спустя 45 лет (Weapon: K-19 – distinguished award after 45 years)". 2003-09-13. Retrieved 2011-05-14.  (Russian)
  5. ^ The Daily Record. Jambos chief Vlad splashes out on subarchive
  6. ^ Historical overview (Russian)
  7. ^
  8. ^ Bivens, Matt. "Horror of Soviet Nuclear Sub 61' Tragedy Retold". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 22 September 2012. 

External links[edit]