The early days of nuclear submarine operation and development were fraught with opportunities for success or disaster.
The United States Navy was first to the game with the Nautilus and the Soviets were not far behind. The major difference was the technology and insistence of safety on the American side. Admiral Rickover’s insistence on training and technological safety were rock solid which prevented the US from many catastrophes.
The Soviets started the game from behind and the lessons learned were legendary for their consequences in the submarine community. From design to command structures, the Soviets had a long history of cleaning up after themselves as they learned one powerful truth after another. Most people know the story behind K19 (aka the Widow maker). The movie starring Harrison Ford is a classic example of the flaws in design, structure, engineering and command problems that plagued the Soviets.
But another class of submarines was also infamous for the “lessons” they provided to the nuclear community.
The NOVEMBER class boats were one of the main elements of the early Soviet Nuclear fleet and provided many successes as well as failures. The truth about many of the boats is only emerging now as records become more open.
This story comes from Wikipedia and talks about the vessel known as K 27.
A single vessel, submarine K-27, was built as project 645 to use a pair of liquid metal-cooled VT-1 reactors. K-27 was launched on 1 April 1962 and had some additional differences from Novembers: cone-shaped hull head, new antimagnetic strong steel alloys, somewhat different configuration of compartments, rapid loading mechanism for each torpedo tube (for the first time in the world). Liquid metal-cooled reactor had better efficiency than water-cooled VM-A reactor, but technical maintenance of liquid metal cooled reactors in naval base was much more complicated
K-27 was laid down on 15 June 1958 and launched on 1 April 1962. The submarine was commissioned on 30 October 1963 after full-scale builders sea trials and official tests.
The first patrol mission of the experimental submarine to Central Atlantic was performed between 21 April – 12 June 1964 (52 days). Captain of K-27, captain 1st rank I.I. Gulyaev was awarded with the Hero of the Soviet Union for mission success and record of submarine continuous underwater stay. The second patrol mission to the Mediterranean Sea took place between 29 June – 30 August 1965 (60 days), K-27 detected and performed training attack with a nuclear torpedo against US Randolph aircraft carrier during NATO naval maneuvers off Sardinia.
US carrier force could only detect K-27 when she obtained range to the training target after the "torpedo attack" but Soviet captain P.F. Leonov skillfully disengaged. K-27 passed 12,425 miles (including 12,278 miles undersea) during the first cruise and 15,000 miles during the second one. K-27 entered service with the Red Banner Northern Fleet (given to 17th submarine division, based in Gremikha) on 7 September 1965 as the test submarine.
An emergency in the port-side reactor took place on 24 May 1968 in the Barents Sea during trials of submerged K-27 at full speed (AR-1 automatic control rod raised up spontaneously and the reactor power decreased from 83% to 7% during 60–90 sec).
It should be noted that the responsible officers informed the command before trials that port-side reactor was not tested yet after small failure took place on 13 October 1967 but their warnings were not taking into consideration. The emergency was accompanied by gamma activity excursion in the reactor compartment (up to 150 R/hour and higher) and spread of radioactive gas along the other compartments.
All crewmembers (124 men) were irradiated, and the main reason according to some crewmembers’ memoirs was the fact that submarine captain, Captain 1st Rank P.F. Leonov believed in reliability of a new type of the reactor too much, so he didn’t order to resurface immediately, didn’t inform crewmembers from other compartments about radiation hazard on board and allowed to have a usual dinner even.
Radiation alarm was transmitted only after requests of a chemical officer and a doctor. K-27 resurfaced and returned from training area to home base using the starboard reactor. The submarine was placed at pier in Severomorsk and a depot ship continuously piped steam to submarine to avoid cooling of heat-transfer metal in the reactor. The most heavily irradiated ten men (holders from the reactor compartment) were transported by aircraft to Leningrad 1st naval hospital next day but four of them (V. Voevoda, V. Gritsenko, V. Kulikov and A. Petrov) died within a month, electrician I. Ponomarenko died on watch in the emergency reactor compartment on 29 May.
More than 30 sailors participated in accident elimination died between 1968–2003 because of over exposure to radiation and the Soviet government held back the truth about the tragic consequences of that reactor emergency for many years.
K-27 tied up in Gremikha bay since 20 June 1968 with cooling reactors and different experimental works were made aboard till 1973 when rebuilding or replacement of the port-side reactor was considered as too expensive and inappropriate procedure.
The submarine was decommissioned on 1 February 1979 and her reactor compartment was filled with special solidifying mixture of furfurol and bitumen in summer 1981 (the work was performed by Severodvinsk shipyard No. 893 "Zvezdochka"). K-27 was towed to a special training area in the Kara Sea and scuttled there on 6 September 1982 in the point 72°31’N 55°30’E (north-east coast of Novaya Zemlya, Stepovoy Bay) at a depth 33 m only (in contravention of an IAEA requirement which asked to scuttle the submarine somewhere at a depth not less than 3,000–4,000 m).
Submarining is a dangerous activity in and of itself. Ships like the K-27 made that reality infinitely more so.
Looking at the pictures in the Russian report was like looking into a mirror from forty years ago. They looked so much like us, it made me pause and reflect.