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K-19: Soviet Submarine #1 at Killing Soviets

The Soviet submarine K-19. Romanov served on b...

The K-19, nicknamed Hiroshima by Soviet sailors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent a semester in Soviet Russia and so thought I had an appreciation of how crappy and slapdash the products of the Soviet system were. Living there was a shock: growing up during the Cold War, I feared Russia like everyone else. Seeing firsthand what a fucking mess that place was, our fears seemed ludicrous. This clusterfuck of a country was somehow a threat?

Then this afternoon I began reading about the K-19 and noted, indeed, it was a threat, but first and foremost to its own citizens. The K-19 nuclear submarine is a mindblowing testament to systematic, aggressive Soviet incompetence. This boat killed 57 of its crew from the time of its construction through its decommissioning. Another 117 were left with varying degrees of radiation poisoning. 

The K-19 was constantly unraveling, a result of the Soviets rushing to place nuclear subs in the water to compete with the US. On its first test outings, the hull’s rubber coating peels off and a clog in the waste system fills one compartment 1/3 full of water, in addition to a water leak in the reactor room. During its first independent outing, the main circuit pump goes out. The first fire occurs during its construction, but 3 more occur on board while at sea, as well as an electrical short circuit that burns 2 sailors, killing 1 outright. And then there’s the whole meltdown situation, during which the coolant system for ship’s reactor failed and the ship had no backup cooling system. As part of separate system failure, the long-range radio was out, so they could not call Moscow for help. At the time they were headed to the Arctic Ocean, 1,500 miles from home, with only a short-range radio to work with. A group of crew members managed to cool the reactor by flooding its container with water but the resultant steam got into the air vents, spreading radiation throughout the ship. Eventually, they connect with another, smaller Soviet submarine that attempts to tow the K-19, only to have the tow lines break under the load.

After every physical defect and system failure appeared, the Soviets would just repair it and send it back out again—from 1959 to 1990. All this despite the warning they got when they tried to christen the ship: the bottle of champagne just bounced off the hull.

Sounds like it could be a movie, doesn’t it? It was. In 2002, Kathryn Bigelow told the story in K-19: The Widowmaker. In keeping with the actual ship’s bad luck, the movie tanked at the box office. National Geographic created a nicely done slideshow about the K-19 meltdown that is shorter than the movie but does not star Harrison Ford.

So think carefully about who you are afraid of. They may be of greater danger to themselves than to you.

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