Russian Sub Disaster Highlights Fleet Safety Ahead of Caribbean Visit

By Patrick Goodenough | November 10, 2008 | 4:38 AM EST

The Russian submarine involved in the weekend accident was identified as the nuclear-powered attack submarine Nerpa, pictured here undergoing sea trials. (Photo: Bellona Foundation)

( – A deadly weekend accident aboard a Russian nuclear-powered submarine has focused fresh attention on the condition of the country’s fleet just weeks before Russian warships hold politically charged joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy in the Caribbean.
Twenty people on the sub died after inhaling poisonous gas Saturday night in the Sea of Japan. The incident is another blow to the reputation of the once-formidable Russian Navy.
This is Russia’s worst such accident since an explosion sank the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in 2000, with all 118 sailors lost. In two other incidents in the Barents Sea, nine crewmen perished when a decommissioned nuclear submarine sank in 2003, and two crew members aboard an anchored attack submarine died in a fire in 2006.
Those who died on the Akula II class attack submarine, identified as the Nerpa, were sailors and civilian technicians monitoring safety tests on the yet-to-be-commissioned vessel.
Russia has launched an investigation, said Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo, who linked the accident to a faulty freon-based fire-extinguishing system. He said another 21 people affected by the gas had been hospitalized but were out of danger.
Dygalo said the nuclear reactor was not affected and was operating normally. The submarine, which reportedly suffered no structural damage, was escorted into a port near Vladivostok in Russia’s far east.
The Akula II class submarine is designed to carry up to 28 nuclear-capable cruise missiles with a striking range of 1,800 miles. Only one is believed to be currently in commission, and its home port is in the Murmansk region of northwest Russia.
Construction on the Nerpa began 17 years ago. It should have been commissioned in 1999, but a lack of funding resulted in length delays. Sea trials only began late last month.
Indian media have reported that the Indian Navy will lease the submarine for a 10-year period beginning in the second half of next year. But neither government has confirmed this, and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said in response to earlier press reports that Russia does not export nuclear submarines.
‘Two or three minutes to act’
The Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental body specializing in Russian nuclear issues, theorized on what might have happened on Saturday.
Noting that 208 people were on board, Bellona said this was nearly three times as many as the vessel’s usual complement, not unusual for sea trials.
Alexander Nikitin, a former submarine captain and head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, said those who died were in a large bow section where most of the trial crew may have been located, as there would not have been enough bunks elsewhere to accommodate them.
In the event of fire, a submarine fire extinguishing system would fill the affected compartment with freon gas, which arrests oxygen and extinguishes the fire, he said. Anyone located in such a compartment should use personal or affixed breathing systems within two or three minutes, failing which they would be poisoned.
Nikitin speculated that the incident may have happened when personnel were asleep and did not hear the alarm, or some may not have known what was happening or how to react.
Noting that the submarine had been under construction for more than 15 years, Nikitin said the system could have been set off spontaneously due to a loss of quality of parts or installations. Alternatively, an illicit smoker may have triggered the system.
Bellona said there were several disquieting factors.
“If the crew of the submarine, together with trial crew, slipped up and let such a massively lethal accident occur, then there are serious questions about the professional preparedness of the crew as well as the trial team,” it said.
According to the official version, the nuclear reactor was unaffected. But concerns about the technical condition of the vessel could apply to the reactor too.
And pointing out that sea trials include weapons tests, Bellona said the factors responsible for the weekend accident could also have even “more serious consequences.”
Naval muscle-flexing
Fuelled by energy revenues and amid a resurgence of national pride driven by former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia has been highlighting its military strength while planning expansion in many areas.
For the first time, a nuclear-powered missile cruiser, the Northern Fleet flagship Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), soon will take part in international exercises, holding joint drills with the Venezuelan Navy in Venezuelan and international waters.

Russia's nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Velikiy and accompanying ships are due to arrive in Caracas later this month for a port visit followed by joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy. (AP Photo)

It is believed to be Russia’s first deployment of warships to the Western Hemisphere since the end of the Cold War. Russian media have described the operation as a Russian “fist in America’s belly.”
The Pyotr Velikiy, an anti-submarine ship Admiral Chabanenko, and accompanying support vessels left their home port in September and have been making their way to Latin America, calling at ports in Libya, Turkey and France on the way.
The Venezuelan Defense Ministry says the Russian vessels will visit Caracas from Nov. 24-30, when the joint exercises will begin. President Dmitry Medvedev also is due to visit for talks with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez, Washington’s most vocal critic in Latin America.
Writing on the challenges posed to the U.S. by the planned Russian visit, Heritage Foundation senior policy analysts Ray Walser Mackenzie Eaglen recently urged Congress to cement relations with friendly Caribbean countries such as Colombia and Panama by approving free trade agreements, before the Russian fleet leaves the region.
A free trade agreement negotiated with Colombia has been held up by Democrats in Congress. President-elect Barack Obama opposes the deal, citing violence against trade unionists in Colombia. The future of a FTA signed with Panama in 2006 also remains uncertain.
From Venezuela, the Russian ships are due to sail to the Indian Ocean for combat training missions later this year, Dygalo announced early this month.
Other Russian ship movements include the deployment of a frigate in the Gulf of Aden, to protect Russian ships and crews from piracy. A missile cruiser-led taskforce from the Northern Fleet will join Black Sea Fleet warships in the Mediterranean Sea for drills in December.
The Russian Navy comprises Pacific, Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets, and a flotilla in the landlocked Caspian Sea.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow