Cold War era Soviet submarines frequently suffered calamitous disasters like those that plagued the Soviet Union’s Project 627 boats. And they were often their own worst enemy.
The United States Navy launched the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine the USS Nautilus SSN-571 in 1954 that revolutionized undersea warfare because Nautilus’s nuclear reactor permitted the submarine to operate submerged without the necessity for combustion air for engines for months a time compared to the limited hours or days of her predecessor conventional diesel-electric submarines. Subsequently the following year, the Soviet Navy began construction of its nuclear submarine fleet with the advent of the Project 627 Attack type sub or November class as it was designated by NATO. The result was a submersible with some perceived advantages over its American competition, but that also exhibited a disturbing propensity to have catastrophic mishaps that over time would prove to be characteristic of the escalating Soviet submarine fleet during the Cold War. And although the press of the era touted the Soviet dominance over the United States in numbers of submarines, in the world of undersea warfare and surveillance it’s quality and not quantity that matters. The Soviets built their submarines for high speed while the USN preferred a combination of more moderate speed combined with stealth. And, in this author’s personal experience it was well known that our Attack boats’ sonar systems could pick up the Soviet boats miles off because they sounded like “freight trains” running under the sea compared to our stealthier Attack boats. And this shortcoming rendered them easily detectable in the open sea allowing us to pick them up and shadow them for hundreds or even thousands of miles. While I was assigned aboard USS Bluefish SSN-675 we once tracked a Soviet November boat from the waters of New England down the east coast to Florida and they had no clue that we were there although at times we were within 50 yards of its stern at high speed and hiding in their prop-wash. We could have taken them out at any time if the situation had warranted it. And this was typical of the mismatch of speed versus stealth and therefore the strategic advantage that our boats had over the Soviet’s and that eventually contributed greatly to America’s victory in the Cold War.
The original specifications drafted in 1952 for a Soviet nuclear submarine had perceived of employing them to launch mammoth nuclear torpedoes at enemy harbors and coastal cities. Because at the time, the Soviet Union lacked the long-range missiles or bombers that could easily hit most of the continental United States. However, as the Soviets developed these capabilities during the mid-1950s, the Project 627 design was revised to reflect an anti-ship role having eight torpedo tubes located forward in the bow and complimented by combat systems borrowed from Foxtrot-class diesel submarines.
The first Project 627 boat was the K-3 Leninsky Komsomol launched in 1957 and it completed its maiden voyage under nuclear power in July 1958 under Capt. Leonid Osipenko utilizing a reactor design supervised by scientist Anatoly Leninsky Komsomol a renowned Soviet and Russian physicist director of the Kurchatov Institute, and president of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. The large torpedo-shaped vessel displaced more than four thousand tons submerged and was 107 meters long. And its double-hulled interior was divided into nine compartments housing a crew of seventy-four seamen and thirty officers. The K-3 rapidly demonstrated the extraordinary endurance of nuclear submarines embarking upon two-month long cruises while submerged. The in 1962, it became the first Soviet vessel to travel to the North Pole, while a sister ship, K-133 was the first submarine to traverse the Drake Strait, a water body between South America and Antarctica.
Joining K-3 in the Soviet fleet soon after were twelve additional November-class vessels of a revised design designated the Project 627A boats distinguishable by a globular sonar dome located under their bow, as well as a single Project 645 prototype modified November-class SSN sub powered by two experimental VT-1 liquid metal lead-bismuth reactors having greater power efficiency. Its steel hull was divided into seven compartments: 1 Torpedo room; 2 Accumulators and Living accommodation; 3 Control room; 4 Reactor compartment; 5 Turbo and diesel generators, cooling and auxiliary machinery; 6 Turbine; 7 Generator. It was modified to test the reactors that were intended for use on the high-speed Alfa-class submarines. However, during sea trials on 24 May 1968, a sudden and inexplicable loss of reactor power occurred with ensuing radioactive gases leaking into the reactor compartment causing nine crewmembers to perish due to radiation sickness. K-27 was never returned to service and the fourteen remaining November-class boats were deployed to the Third and Seventeenth Divisions of the Northern Fleet, though later four were transferred to the Pacific Fleet by transiting under Arctic ice.
The 627’s VM-A reactors could provide more power than their American contemporaries producing speeds up to thirty knots (34.5 mph). However, the 627 lacked another quality generally desirable of a nuclear submarine, stealth because their reactors were extremely noisy making the Project 627 boats more detectable by enemy sonar despite the use of stealthy propellers and the first anti-sonar hull coating applied to a nuclear submarine. This along with its inferior sonar array made the November class ill-suited for hunting opposing submarines.
However, the 627s still dealt the U.S. Navy a few surprises as in 1965, K-27 managed to sneak up on the antisubmarine carrier USS Randolph CVS-15 off of the Sardinia coast and complete a mock torpedo run on it before being detected. Then in 1968, another November-class boat proved capable of matching pace with the carrier USS Enterprise CVN-65 while she was steaming at full power causing a minor panic in the U.S Navy leadership that led to the adoption of the speedy Los Angeles–class attack submarine to counter the 627s.
But, the power of the November class’s reactors was bought at the cost of safety and reliability because inadequate radiation shielding resulted in frequent crew illnesses and many of the boats suffered multiple reactor malfunctions over their lifetimes. The deficiency in reliability may explain why the Soviet Union deployed conventional Foxtrot submarines instead of the November-class vessels during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 despite the fact that the diesel boats were required to surface every few days and so were easily cornered and chased away by patrolling American ships. In fact, the frequent catastrophic disasters onboard the Project 627 boats seem almost like gruesome public service announcements for everything that could conceivably go wrong with nuclear submarines. Many of the accidents reflected not only technological flaws, but the weak safety culture of the Soviet Navy.
The Soviet submarine K-8 began the trend on October 13, 1960 when a ruptured steam turbine nearly led to a reactor meltdown due to loss of coolant. The crew was able to jury-rig an emergency water-cooling system but not before radioactive gas contaminated the vessel’s internal atmosphere seriously irradiating several of the crew. The sub went down in 15000 feet with four nuclear-tipped torpedoes aboard and it has never been recovered.
In February 1965, radioactive steam blasted through K-11 on two separate occasions while it underwent reactor refueling at base. The repair crews misdiagnosed the implications of the first event then filed to follow correct procedures during the second and were ultimately forced to evacuate the reactor room leading to fires breaking out across the ship. Then the Soviet crew flooded the vessel with 250 tons of water to extinguish the flames thereby spreading radioactive water throughout the vessel. Seven men were badly irradiated during the event and the reactor required a complete replacement before it could be returned to active duty three years later.
K-3, the first Soviet submarine to sail on nuclear power, was on a Mediterranean patrol on September 8, 1967 when a hydraulic fire broke out in its torpedo tubes resulting in the buildup of carbon monoxide and killing thirty-nine sailors. The entire command crew passed out except for a lone petty officer who managed to surface the ship saving the vessel. A later investigation concluded the fire may have been caused by a sailor smoking in the torpedo compartment.
K-27, the lone Project 645 boat, experienced a breakdown in its port-side reactor on May 24, 1968 in the Barents Sea despite the crew warning that the reactor had experienced a similar malfunction in 1967 and had yet to test that it was functioning properly. The entire crew of 124 was irradiated by radioactive gas but its Captain Leonov refused to take emergency measures until hours later due to his faith in the reactor. Shortly after the ship limped home on its starboard reactor but five of the crew died from radiation exposure within a month with twenty-five more to follow in subsequent years. Repair of K-27 ultimately proved too expensive and so it was scuttled by ramming it in the bay in waters only thirty-three meters deep rather than the three to four thousand meters required by The International Atomic Energy Agency, an international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons.
In 1970, the ill-fated K-8 was participating in the Okean 70 war games history’s largest peacetime fleet exercise off the Bay of Biscay when it suffered simultaneous short circuits in its command center and reactor control room spreading fire throughout the air conditioning system. The captain managed to surface the boat and the crew nearly escaped with only moderate loss of life except that the Soviet Navy ordered about half of the men back on board to conduct emergency repairs and pilot the ship home. Subsequently, an encounter with a sea squall led to the damaged boat sinking to the ocean floor and taking fifty-eight crew and four nuclear torpedoes with it.
Ultimately, the November-class boats began to enter retirement in the 1980s and early 1990s but not before being subject to a few mishaps not of their own making. In August 1985, K-42 was berthed next to the Echo-class submarine K-433 near Vladivostok, Russia, then the home of the Soviet Pacific Fleet when the latter experienced a nuclear refueling accident that killed ten sailors and irradiated 239 others. K-42 was deemed so badly contaminated that it too had to be decommissioned.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the Soviet Union it was succeeded by an economically destitute Russia and many decommissioned nuclear submarines were left to corrode at their berths with their nuclear fuel still aboard leading to safety concerns from many governments abroad. Consequently, International donors fronted $200 million to scrap the hulks in 2003 to negate an environmental disaster. Flimsy pontoons were welded onto K-159 to enable its being towed to a scrapping site, but on August 30 a sea squall ripped away one of the pontoons causing the boat to begin foundering around midnight and the Russian Navy failed to react until hours later by which time the submarine had sunk taking eight hundred kilograms of spent nuclear fuel and nine of the ten seamen manning the pontoons with it. Plans to raise K-159 have foundered to this day due to lack of funding.
This is just an accounting of the major accidents concerning the November-class boats and more occurred on Echo and Hotel-class submarines equipped with the same nuclear reactors. Submarine operations are, of course, inherently risky; the U.S. Navy also lost two submarines during the 1960s, though it hasn’t lost any since. But those losses weren’t attributable to problems with their nuclear reactors.
The November-class submarines may not have been particularly silent hunters, but they nonetheless marked a breakthrough in providing the Soviet submarine fleet global reach while operating submerged. They also provided painful lessons paid in human lives lost or irreparably damaged in the risks inherent to exploiting nuclear power and in the high price to be paid for technical errors and lax safety procedures.
In contrast, the United States Navy has an unblemished safety record both in the operation of its nuclear reactors and the handling and deployment of nuclear weapons. As such not a single American sailor has even had a serious injury associated with operating a nuclear reactor. And this cannot be touted even by the private sector.