Accident on nuclear submarine kills 20 off eastern Russian coast

MOSCOW: A brand-new Russian nuclear submarine returned to base Sunday after an accident with its fire-extinguishing system flooded two compartments with Freon gas, killing 20 people and injuring 21, Russian officials said.

The submarine - which naval officials would not identify but that a state-owned news agency identified as the Nerpa, an Akula-class attack submarine - was undergoing tests in the Sea of Japan at the time of the accident. A spokesman for the Russian Navy, Igor Dygalo, reported that its reactor had not been damaged and that radiation levels were normal.

The vessel was scheduled to be commissioned in the navy later this year, and most of the dead were shipbuilders on board to carry out tests. An additional 167 people on board were not hurt, Dygalo said. The specific naval base the sub returned to was not disclosed, though Vladivostok, the main Russian base in the far east, is near where the accident occurred.

Alexander Kolmakov, the first deputy defense minister, and Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the head of the navy, were heading to the Pacific Coast after the accident, Dygalo said.

It was the most deadly incident on board a Russian submarine since 2000, when an explosion aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk caused it to sink in the Barents Sea. Many of the 118 men aboard survived the sinking, but they were all dead by the time the vessel was brought to the surface, prompting criticism of then-President Vladimir Putin for his slow reaction to the crisis.

The government's response to this incident has been notably different. Within hours of the malfunction, President Dmitri Medvedev asked his defense minister for continual briefings on the situation and pledged support to victims' families. News coverage has been intense, with telephone hotlines for victims' families displayed on newscasts.

Sergei Markin, an official with Russia's top investigative agency, said an investigation into the accident had begun and would focus on what activated the firefighting system. He suggested there could be possible violations of operating rules, something that points to human error.

Seventeen civilians and three seamen died in the accident and 21 others were hospitalized after being evacuated to a destroyer that brought them to shore, Markin said in a statement.

A series of other incidents have followed the sinking of the Kursk.

In 2003, a decommissioned nuclear submarine sank while it was being towed to a scrapyard, killing nine crew members aboard. In 2004, one person was killed when a holding tank on a submarine exploded during repair work.

In 2005, a hurried international rescue effort brought seven Russian sailors to the surface with only three to six hours' worth of air left. And in 2006, two soldiers suffocated when a fire broke out on a nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea.

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