A senior Russian Navy official said that accident on the nuclear-powered submarine Losharik was nearly a “planetary catastrophe,” were it not for the fourteen sailors killed in the incident. The submarine, widely believed to be a spy sub capable of operating on the deep ocean floor, was damaged in an accident on July 1st. The Kremlin denied there was risk of such a “catastrophe.”
An aid to the head of the Russian Navy, Sergei Pavlov, stated at a funeral for the sailors lost in the accident, “With their lives, they saved the lives of their colleagues, saved the vessel and prevented a planetary catastrophe.” Pavlov reportedly did not elaborate.
The Kremlin denied that the reactor had been at risk, stating that it had been “totally sealed off” and there were no problems with it. Radiation monitoring stations in Norway relatively near where the incident took place have not reported any spikes in radioactivity.
The accident, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, started in the sub’s battery compartment and spread. This suggests a fire that was the result of a buildup of hydrogen gasses inside the ship. Submarines, even nuclear ones, carry banks of batteries to provide a temporary source of power, and hydrogen is produced as a byproduct of the battery charging process. If the gas reaches a critical level of concentration, a spark onboard the ship could set off a fire.
According to Shoigu, the crew battled the fire for an hour and a half. Although the automatic fire extinguishers kicked in, they proved insufficient. The surviving crew managed to initiate an emergency blow procedure and the ship surfaced off the coast of the Kola Peninsula, where the remaining crew members were rescued.
Losharik, named after a cartoon horse made of interconnected juggling balls, got its name because the interior of the ship is made of seven interconnected steel or titanium spheres. The spheres give the ship its deep diving capability, with the sub reportedly capable of reaching depths of at least 1,000 meters (3,280 feet).
It is not clear where Losharik’s 5 megawatt nuclear reactor resides, but the ship is only 230 feet long with all personnel, propulsion systems, and mission equipment inside the seven spheres. The fire could not have been far from the reactor, but if the reactor and batteries resided in different spheres they could have been closed off from one another. Shoigu seems to be stating that was the case.
Even if the fire did reach the reactor it seems unlikely that the ejection of radioactive materials could cause a “planetary catastrophe” on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Losharik’s reactor generated just five megawatts, the RBMK reactor at Chernobyl was much more powerful and used much more nuclear material to generate up to 3,200 megawatts.
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