NBC Weapons: Smoldering SLBMs Smothered




February 19, 2012: It was recently revealed that a Russian submarine, that caught fire while in a dry dock last December, still had 16 nuclear ballistic missiles, plus four non-nuclear torpedoes stored in launch tubes. Normally, these weapons are removed before entering dry dock. Initially the Russian Defense Ministry said this had been done. But local journalists spoke with shipyard workers who confirmed that the navy commanders and shipyard managers agreed to save time (about two weeks) and not remove the missiles and torpedoes. During the fire crewmen inside the sub removed the torpedoes from their launch tubes to prevent the fire on the hull from triggering one of the torpedo warheads (each carrying 300 kg/660 pounds of explosives). One torpedo going off could have set the others off, which might have led to a breach in the nuclear reactor containment and the detonation of the ballistic missile warheads. The explosives in the nuclear warheads would not have caused a nuclear explosion but would have spread the nuclear material over a wide area. Some of the hypergolic fuel of the ballistic missiles would also ignite, helping to spread vaporized nuclear material even further.

This all began last December 29th, when the wooden scaffolding surrounding the Russian Delta IV class SSBN (ballistic missile armed nuclear submarine) Yekaterinburg caught fire while it was undergoing maintenance. The wood fire spread to the sound-proofing tiles on the hull and the forward compartments (where the hull had been removed) and proved impossible to extinguish. The dry dock the sub was in was then flooded, which partially submerged the sub and this largely extinguished the fire. It took about twenty hours to get the fires complexly out. There was no damage done to the interior of the boat or to the nuclear reactors on board. Thus there was no release of radiation from the sub's reactors. There were several sailors on board during the incident but none were killed, although a few suffered from carbon monoxide inhalation.

The rubber-like tiles on the hull are a common feature of nuclear subs, as it prevents sounds from inside the sub escaping, which would allow enemy sonar to more easily detect the sub. The Yekaterinburg was in a shipyard outside the northern Russian port of Murmansk. The shipyard director suspected that someone failed to apply fire retardant to the lumber used in the scaffolding. This might have been the result of corruption (someone sold off the fire retardant and pocketed the money). This is the third Russian submarine accident since 2000. The first two killed 138 people. The navy said the damage was repairable and that the Yekaterinburg would return to service. This is essential, as replacement SSBNs have been slow in arriving and the seven remaining Delta IVs will have to remain in service at least another decade.

Entering service in 1986, the 14,000 ton Yekaterinburg was put in dry dock for maintenance in 1996. But money for salaries and materials was short and work dragged on until 1998, when it stopped (as did any funding at all). But in 2001 money was allocated and the work completed. The Yekaterinburg completed sea trials in 2002 and was put back in service for another ten or fifteen years.




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