russua sub deadly gas
AP
At least 20 people were killed in an accident aboard the Nerpa, a Russian nuclear sub.
MILITARY

Tragedy Under The Sea

A common accident on a Russian submarine may have turned fatal because of overcrowding.

 
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On Saturday, 20 people died and 21 were seriously injured after an accident on the Russian submarine Nerpa. The Akula-class attack sub was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan prior to being leased to the Indian Navy; there were 208 people on board the submarine, 81 of them military personnel and the rest visiting civilian engineers. NEWSWEEK's Anna Nemtsova spoke to Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of Moscow Defense Brief (a publication of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategic and Technologies), and to Alexander Golts, defense editor of the Moscow-based Yezhednevny Zhurnal online newspaper. Golts visited the Nerpa in 2000 while it was still under construction in the Amur shipyard in the Russian Pacific port of Komsomolsk-on-Amur and spoke to its crew and engineers. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you know about Saturday ' s accident on the Nerpa?
Mikhail Barabanov:
The official version is that a chemical-fire extinguishing system malfunctioned. The Nerpa's automatic fire-suppression system accidentally released Freon gas—known as Hladon 114B2—as the submarine was undergoing sea trials. Accidental activation of the fire-suppression systems is a common accident on submarines. But normally there are no victims, as the crew is trained to put on oxygen masks in time. In this case, it is unclear exactly why there are so many victims. But the most obvious reason is that besides the crew, there was a crowd of civilians aboard—127 of the people on board at the time were civilian port workers and engineers. That means the boat was overcrowded. And the civilian guests on the boat did not know what to do in an emergency situation. My understanding is that the fire alarm failed to work, so the passengers did not realize that the gas started to displace oxygen in the affected compartments.

As for the reason for the fire-suppression system's malfunction, the system is normally controlled by the sub's Malakhit central-control system. Nerpa was equipped with a digital Malakhit. One version is that the accident took place due to an error in the Malakhit's operating program, which is still in development. I believe the reason was more in a malfunction of the sub's new command systems than a mistake by the personnel on board. On the other hand, such [a] highly toxic firefighting system is of course old-fashioned. Maybe this accident will lead the Russian navy to replace the current system with a low-toxic Hladon 13B1—but that would require a big investment.

You visited the shipyard in 2000 and talked to the crew of the Nerpa. What did you learn back then that bears on this accident?
Alexander Golts:
This submarine was under construction for about 15 years. I was told at the Amur shipyard that they started to build it either in 1991 or 1993. The shipyard's director was on the verge of tears as he told me that they had installed the nuclear reactor on the Nerpa but that he didn't have the money to power up the reactor plant to anything over standard operating temperature. The boatyard had no finances to take the new submarine to the Russian Navy's nuclear reactor facility at Bolshoi Kamen to test the full capacity of the reactor.

I am sure that most of the people who worked on building this submarine for 15 years were lacking experience, or had simply lost their skills. In the 1980s, this shipyard turned out submarines one after the other, like pancakes. But over the last 15 years they made just one—the Nerpa. The old specialists had left, the new ones lacked professionalism. I wonder if the crowd of engineers on board at the time of the accident were given oxygen masks at all.

How does the Nerpa differ from the Kursk, which sank in 2000?
Barabanov:
The Kursk could fire ballistic missiles at targets on land as well as enemies at sea. The Nerpa is an Akula-971 class attack submarine—it is a multitarget submarine designed to destroy other submarines and ships. Between 1983 to 2001, Russia built 14 submarines of Akula-971 project, of different modifications. Nerpa was number 15. Right now the Russian fleet has 12 working submarines of this type.

 
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Member Comments
  • Posted By: Braes @ 11/13/2008 2:34:15 PM

    Comment: Now as for the 800# Gorilla in the room, Iran, there are planty of untried options that do not involve an Eastern European deployment of an ABM system. We can eliminate any embargoes of Medical, Foodstuff, or other non-dual use sales, after all, Halliburton has been making money in Iran for years, in direct violation of many laws. We can place the Radar system in many locations favorable to our interests that are not directly under Ivan's nose. We can still provide Poland and the Czech Republic the equipment they need to defend themselves without any offensive threat to Russia. The USAF 3 Star General who is retiring next week has tossed a lot of flame toward the incoming Administration about the National Missile Defense system basing. Generals do not make policy and are not elected politicians. He is out of line.
    The question is not one of capacity or improvements since 2000.
    The question is do I want allies or enemies, international support or hate. Unilateralism and calling Russia hysterical and dismissing their objections has been stupid. Changing the basing model will not as the General suggests "Weaken American Leadership of NATO." I'd say rendition, Afghanistan, Iraq, insults and other such things have done just fine to weaken our diplomatic standing in the world, let alone NATO. What the General wants is a great big USAF piece of the NMD pie, when most of it is Army and Navy based. Good old fashioned interservice rivalry.
    Now, honestly, I can accomplish nothing in this world without Russia, China, India, Brazil and a host of others on board. I will not be able to dictate terms and conditions to anyone, but have to negotiate. Russia can run Irans nuclear fuel cycle with no problems here. The "peaceful atom" has been United States policy since the Eisenhower Administration. Let Iran boil water and make electricity. As far as wiping Israel off the map and other nonsense, Israel has it's own ABM systems and help from us. They also have enough nukes to bust anyone they wanted to shoot, anywhere. An attack on Israel would be the complete end of all of Persia, and much of humanity in the resulting global damage. You can not put that much Iran at 80,000ft, glowing, and expect good crop performance for a bunch of years.
    The DoD has more band members, or lawyers, than the State Department has diplomats.

  • Posted By: Braes @ 11/13/2008 1:24:47 PM

    Comment: Ivan doesn't believe this. We have over 4800 Standard Missile III's in the fleet that can with a software modification shoot a cold object in space. These are aboard several classes of surface combatants.
    Integrated into our global ABM capacity, Ivan feels that we are successfully neutering his capacity, and could have the capability within the next few years.
    Ivan is very correct.
    Ivan has watched us shoot ICBM's from Vandenberg AFB, and shoot them down from Alaska's Ft. Greely, a roughly 90deg intercept at 5000+mi range.
    Ivan can use a protractor and map. Ft. Greely covers several of his time zones, and a facility in Eastern Europe would provide overlapping coverage.
    Ivan won't allow that under any circumstances that he does not dictate or control. He is done getting slapped around.
    The problem with the Kursk was not it's propulsion system. The Kursk suffered multiple explosions forward. They were unable to control the fire, and unable to secure enough bulkheads to maintain bouyancy.
    The German Submarine you saw is a very quiet class of boat, and we will not be giving that technology to anyone. It is good enough a boat that it can get to just about any target and make a kill. You were right on fuel cells.

  • Posted By: Holly Garfield @ 11/13/2008 9:24:46 AM

    Comment: We have to consider all of the threat capabilites and likelihoods. At this point Ivan is pretty much out of the threat likelihood. Ivan and the US are still well above MAD levels and ABM capabilities are too weak to keep MAD from happening. Russia, like the US, has a well developed bureauocracy that makes nuclear war hard to pass. Iran, on the other hand, has an agressive and small ruling class. While we must consider Ivan to some extent the more serious threat is Iran. A society that accepts suicide bombers with nuclear capability is far scarier than a Russia that has had H-bombs for about 70 years without using them. Ivan may not like our ABMs, but Ivan isn't into suicide.

    I think I saw a program where European countries are developing a quiet third power source sub with decent range, I think it was something like natural gas or fuel cells. I wonder if the EU could sell that type of sub to India. It would be safer, and EU can build in the weapons platforms needed without nuclear power. We don't need another Kursk.

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