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Russia Probes Nuclear Sub Hull Blaze

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

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A rubber hull coating blazed out of control for hours on a Russian nuclear submarine last week, before 400 firefighters and 170 emergency workers could extinguish the fire.

The massive fire broke out Thursday (Dec. 29) on the hull of the 550-foot Yekaterinburg, a Delta IV-class vessel commissioned in 1985. The sub was dry-docked at the time for repairs and maintenance near the northern port of Murmansk.

 Water is sprayed on the Yekaterinburg nuclear submarine

 Photo:  TV21

In a video image, firefighters spray water on the Yekaterinburg nuclear submarine at a dock in Russia's Murmansk region on Friday.

It took nine hours to control the blaze, which spread over 1,600 square feet of the hull and billowed  flames and smoke high into the air throughout the night. Authorities finally had to partly submerge the vessel to douse the flames.

Rubber Coating

Later, Russian state television showed the hull still smoldering, with firefighters gathering around and some standing on top to douse it with water.

The blaze was fed by the hull’s rubber coating, designed to make the vessel less noisy and more difficult for an enemy to detect.

“Delta-class submarines have an outer skin of anechoic rubber, designed to absorb sound from sonars to make the boat harder to detect, but which could burn in a dry environment,” the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.

“The boat has a double hull of thick steel, however, which would protect its interior from external fire.”

During the fire, Northern Fleet spokesman Capt. 1st Rank Vadim Serga said there was “no possibility of fire burning through the hull.”

A Russian web site known as Blogger 51, however, released photos showing the flames coming out of the torpedo compartment where the hull had earlier been cut open on the port side for repairs.

Injuries and Fumes

Seven sailors and two emergency workers were hospitalized for inhalation of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes; two were later released. Officials said the vessel’s nuclear reactor had been turned off and its 16 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles offloaded before the blaze began.

Toxic fumes from the fire spread to the surrounding town of Roslyakovo, but officials said there was no need to evacuate local residents, according to the Associated Press.

 Crew members remained inside the sub throughout the massive blaze

 Photo: The Ministry of Emergency Situations

Crew members remained inside the sub throughout the massive blaze. It was unclear whether they had been trapped or ordered to remain there.

The Russian Defense Ministry said fuel and lubricants had probably been ignited by welding—and possibly smoking—in the system’s nose section.

“Fire safety violations during routine maintenance works are cited as the most likely cause,” a Ministry release said.

The fire apparently began on the wooden scaffolding that surrounded the vessel.

‘Somebody Smoked’

“A disaster is caused by people,” Capt. Igor Kurdin, the vessel’s former commander, told television crews. “Somebody smoked, and I am absolutely sure that it wasn’t a submariner but the factory crew that works there. A submariner would never do that.”

An unspecified number of crew members remained inside the submarine to measure temperature and gas concentrations, which remained normal throughout the firefighting effort, Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

 Photo: RIA Novosti

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered that the sub be repaired and restored to the naval fleet—a project that may take a year, officials said.

Konashenkov’s statement left it unclear whether the crew had been trapped inside or ordered to stay there, the Associated Press noted.

The Ministry of Defense said no abnormal radiation levels had been detected on the vessel or in the surrounding area, The New York Times reported.

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Prosecutor General’s Office “to thoroughly investigate the incident and to punish those responsible,” the Kremlin said.

The damage was still being evaluated, but Medvedev ordered that the sub be repaired and restored to the fleet, the Ministry added.

Grim Record

The blaze was the third disaster for Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet in 11 years.

In 2000, an explosion aboard the Kursk submarine killed all 118 sailors and officers aboard as the vessel sank in the Barents Sea. Information emerged slowly in that case, and the authorities initially refused offers of rescue help from foreign navies while insisting that a collision with a foreign submarine had caused the crash, The New York Times reported.

In 2008, an accident at the Nerpa nuclear-powered submarine killed 20 seamen and injured 21 others when the fire-extinguishing system accidentally activated and spewed suffocating Freon gas.


Tagged categories: Fire; Health and safety; Marine Coatings; Scaffolding

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (1/18/2012, 4:10 PM)

While certainly a bad incident, I wouldn't call this a "disaster."

Comment from M. Halliwelll, (1/20/2012, 10:44 AM)

Tom, I'm not sure Captain Kurdin is saying it was a "disaster" per least not in the way we look at disasters and perhaps there is a language issue involved...but rather that this wasn't an accident. I think he's implying that someone messed up and this was the result, vs. it was an accident.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (1/23/2012, 12:59 PM)

Absolutely, I was more commenting on the reporting style. Under "Grim Record" the article states "The blaze was the third disaster for Russia's nuclear submarine fleet..."

Comment from M. Halliwelll, (1/24/2012, 10:30 AM)

Ok :) There I agree with you. The Kursk was definitely a disaster, but the Nerpa sounds like an accident and the Yekaterinburg sounds like someone's mistake. I'd say "incident" would be a better choice of words for that section.

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