Tag Archives: K-27

Eyewitness: Tragedy of Soviet nuclear submarine K-27

Group of K-27 sailors (pic: Vyacheslav Mazurenko)

Vyacheslav Mazurenko with K-27 comrades in 1968 – he is second from right

The Russian authorities are investigating whether a sunken Soviet nuclear-powered submarine, the K-27, can be safely raised so that the uranium in its reactors may be removed.

At the height of the Cold War, in 1968, the K-27 met with disaster when radiation escaped from one of its reactors during a voyage in the Arctic.

Vyacheslav Mazurenko, then 22, was serving as a chief warrant officer (CWO) on the vessel, which now lies abandoned in the Arctic’s Kara Sea. Today he lives in Ukraine and he told BBC Russian what happened.

“We were on a five-day trip to check everything was working normally, before a 70-day round-the-world mission without resurfacing,” he said.

“It was the end of the third day and everything seemed to be going well. The crew was really tired.”

The mission would be to collect data about Nato and other enemy bases. K-27 had two experimental liquid metal-cooled reactors – a design never tried before in the Soviet navy. Nuclear power enabled the sub to stay underwater for weeks without resurfacing and without having to refuel.

K-27 sub being towed prior to being scuttled off Novaya Zemlya, 1981
The K-27 was sunk in the Kara Sea in 1981 (pic: Vyacheslav Mazurenko)


“At 11:35 everything was peaceful,” he said.

“The bulkheads were open. I was in the fifth compartment, next to the fourth compartment with the two nuclear reactors, talking to some crew members there. We suddenly noticed some people running.

“We had a radiation detector in the compartment, but it was switched off. To be honest, we hadn’t paid much attention to the radiation dosimeters we were given. But then, our radiation supervisor switched on the detector in the compartment and it went off the scale. He looked surprised and worried.”

They did not understand what had happened immediately because the radioactive gas had no odour or colour. But two hours later, some crewmen came out of the fourth compartment – and some of them had to be carried, because they could not walk, CWO Mazurenko said.

He put it down to fatigue, because the crew had spent three days with almost no sleep.

The submarine headed back to its base on the Kola Peninsula, by the Barents Sea, which took five hours.

As the sub approached, the base’s command fled the dockside, because special radiation alarms onshore were emitting a deafening roar, CWO Mazurenko recalled.

Soon after, the base commander picked up the captain in a car, but most of the crew had to walk 2km (1.2 miles) back to their barracks under their own steam.

Several specialist crew members were left on board the toxic sub for about a day, because they were under orders to keep watch.

Some have blamed K-27’s Capt Pavel Leonov over the accident, but CWO Mazurenko says the captain faced a life-or-death choice.

“When the sub surfaced to make the trip back to the docks, the division ordered it to cut its engines and await special instructions. The captain, however, decided to keep going, because if the sub stopped for several hours nobody would survive long enough to get it back to base.”

The crew of 144 were poisoned – nine died of radiation sickness soon after the emergency, and the others were ill for years before their premature deaths.

‘Little Golden Fish’

K-27 went into service in 1963, about five years after construction had started. It was very expensive and took longer to build than other Soviet nuclear submarines. So the sailors called it the “Little Golden Fish” – or “Zolotaya Rybka” in Russian – after a magical, fairy-tale fish which makes people’s wishes come true.

Volodya Gusev (left) and Anatoly Kulakov - two K-27 sailors now dead
These two K-27 sailors died later from radiation sickness (pic: Vyacheslav Mazurenko)


“In Soviet times, we were told that our subs were the best, and we had to be different from the ‘imperialists’. But the first subs were far from perfect. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said: ‘We’ll catch up with you and overtake you’. They kept churning out new subs, regardless of the risk to people,” CWO Mazurenko said.

The crew were part of the military elite. They got lemons and oranges – citrus fruit that most Soviet citizens, battling daily with shortages, never saw.

The crew were told that their reactors were extremely safe and could not suffer the breakdowns that had plagued some other Russian submarines in the past, CWO Mazurenko said.

“When the assessment commission came round, its members were often afraid to visit the reactor compartment. They always tried to avoid it, but Captain Leonov actually sat on one of the reactors, to show them how safe it was.”

However, CWO Mazurenko says radioactive particles had been detected aboard the submarine from the very start.

Medical negligence

He was among 10 lucky crew members to be sent to a Leningrad hospital within a day of the disaster. The fate of the rest of the crew was in the hands of the Communist Party in Moscow.

Five days after the accident, the rest were taken to Leningrad – now called St Petersburg. They were each isolated from the outside world.

K-27 survivors with wives
Some survivors and their wives meet up to remember old times (pic: Vyacheslav Mazurenko)


Many Soviet sailors and officers were ordered to donate blood and bone marrow, knowing nothing about the accident, which remained an official secret for three decades.

K-27 officers were later warned they should not have children for five years and were given regular check-ups, but there was no proper medical follow-up for the ordinary submariners, according to CWO Mazurenko. Many of them were declared “healthy” by military doctors, despite their illnesses, he added.

On the medical certificate they received 25 years after the disaster, it simply read: “Participated in nuclear accident elimination on the submarine. Exposed to radiation.”

Despite what happened, Vyacheslav Mazurenko told the BBC: “I do not regret that I served almost four years on this submarine, with these people.”

Of the original 144 crew, only 56 are still alive. Most of them became physically handicapped and they still do not know the level of radiation they were exposed to.

In 1981, K-27 was sunk at a depth of just 30m (99ft) in the Kara Sea – far shallower than the depth required by international guidelines.

Source – BBC News

Russia explores old nuclear waste dumps in Arctic – Video Clip

By Laurence PeterBBC News

K-27 sub being towed prior to being scuttled off Novaya Zemlya, 1981
The Soviet K-27 submarine was sunk in the Kara Sea in 1981 after a fatal nuclear leak (pic: Vyacheslav Mazurenko)

The toxic legacy of the Cold War lives on in Russia’s Arctic, where the Soviet military dumped many tonnes of radioactive hardware at sea.

For more than a decade, Western governments have been helping Russia to remove nuclear fuel from decommissioned submarines docked in the Kola Peninsula – the region closest to Scandinavia.

But further east lies an intact nuclear submarine at the bottom of the Kara Sea, and its highly enriched uranium fuel is a potential time bomb.

This year the Russian authorities want to see if the K-27 sub can be safely raised, so that the uranium – sealed inside the reactors – can be removed.

They also plan to survey numerous other nuclear dumps in the Kara Sea, where Russia’s energy giant Rosneft and its US partner Exxon Mobil are now exploring for oil and gas.

Kara Sea map

Seismic tests have been done and drilling of exploratory wells is likely to begin next year, so Russia does not want any radiation hazard to overshadow that. Rosneft estimates the offshore fossil fuel reserves to be about 21.5bn tonnes.

‘Strategic imperative’

The Kara Sea region is remote, sparsely populated and bitterly cold, frozen over for much of the year. The hostile climate would make cleaning up a big oil spill hugely challenging, environmentalists say.

Those fears were heightened recently by the Kulluk accident – a Shell oil rig that ran aground in Alaska.

But Charles Emmerson, an Arctic specialist at the Chatham House think tank, says Arctic drilling is a “strategic imperative” for Russia, which relies heavily on oil and gas exports.

It is a bigger priority for Russia than Alaskan energy is for the US, he says, because the US now has a plentiful supply of shale gas. That and environmental concerns make the Arctic more problematic for Americans, he told BBC News.

“In the US the Arctic gets great public scrutiny and it’s highly political, but in Russia there is less public pressure.”

Russia is rapidly developing the energy-rich Yamal Peninsula, on the eastern shore of the Kara Sea. The retreat of Arctic summer sea ice, believed to be evidence of global warming, means liquefied natural gas tankers will be able to reach the far east via Russia’s Northern Sea Route in future.

Secret dumps

“Start Quote

Two sailors from K-27

The captain decided to keep going, because if the sub stopped for several hours nobody would survive long enough to get it back to base”
Vyacheslav MazurenkoK-27 survivor

On the western flank is a closed military zone – the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. It was where the USSR tested hydrogen bombs – above ground in the early days.

Besides K-27, official figures show that the Soviet military dumped a huge quantity of nuclear waste in the Kara Sea: 17,000 containers and 19 vessels with radioactive waste, as well as 14 nuclear reactors, five of which contain hazardous spent fuel. Low-level liquid waste was simply poured into the sea.

Norwegian experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are satisfied that there is no evidence of a radiation leak – the Kara Sea’s radioisotope levels are normal.

But Ingar Amundsen, an official at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), says more checks are needed.

The risk of a leak through seawater corrosion hangs over the future – and that would be especially dangerous in the case of K-27, he told BBC News.

“You cannot exclude the possibility that there is more waste there which we don’t know about,” he said.

Igor Kudrik of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona says there is even a risk that corrosion could trigger a nuclear chain reaction, in the worst-case scenario.

Other wrecks

Kursk wreck in dry dock
In 2001 the ill-fated Kursk was salvaged and put in a Russian dry dock


With international help Russia did manage to lift the wreck of the Kursk submarine after it sank in the Barents Sea during exercises in 2000. A torpedo explosion and fire killed 118 Russian sailors, in a drama which gripped the world’s media. The Russian navy was heavily criticised for its slow response.

But another ill-fated Russian nuclear-powered sub – the K-159 – remains at the bottom of the Barents Sea, in international waters.

And in the Norwegian Sea lies the K-278 Komsomolets, reckoned to be too deep to be salvaged.

Mr Amundsen says Russia is finally giving the radioactive waste problem the attention it deserves, and “we’re very happy they are focusing on this now”.

K-27 was an experimental submarine – the first in the Soviet navy to be powered by two reactors cooled by lead-bismuth liquid metal.

Disaster struck in 1968, when radioactive gases escaped from one reactor, poisoning crew members who tried to repair it at sea.

This footage from the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority shows the K-27 submarine underwater

Nine sailors died of radiation sickness, but the Soviet military kept it secret for decades.

Data collection

The navy gave up trying to repair K-27 and scuttled it illegally in 1981 off Novaya Zemlya. It lies just 30m (99ft) beneath the surface of Stepovogo fjord – though international guidelines say decommissioned vessels should be buried at least 3,000m down.

Last September a joint Norwegian-Russian expedition examined the wreck with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with a video camera. Some other nuclear dump sites were also examined and they found no signs of any leak, but the investigations are continuing.

Beyond the Kara Sea, Russia is forging ahead with exploration of the Arctic seabed, collecting data for a claim to areas beyond its waters.

Other Arctic countries are doing the same, aware of the frozen wilderness’s importance as the planet’s more accessible resources are depleted. A UN body, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)., will adjudicate on the claims.

As if to underline the strategic priorities, Russia is boosting its military presence in the Arctic and the Northern Fleet is getting a new generation of submarines, armed with multiple nuclear warheads.

Source – BBC News