Soviet submarine K-278 Komsomolets

K-278 Komsomolets was the only Project 685 Плавник (Plavnik, meaning "fin
A fin is a surface used for stability and/or to produce lift and thrust or to steer while traveling in water, air, or other fluid media, . The first use of the word was for the limbs of fish, but has been extended to include other animal limbs and man-made devices...

", also known by its NATO reporting name
NATO reporting name
NATO reporting names are classified code names for military equipment of the Eastern Bloc...

 of "Mike"-class) nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Soviet Navy
Soviet Navy
The Soviet Navy was the naval arm of the Soviet Armed Forces. Often referred to as the Red Fleet, the Soviet Navy would have played an instrumental role in a Warsaw Pact war with NATO, where it would have attempted to prevent naval convoys from bringing reinforcements across the Atlantic Ocean...

. The boat sank in 1989 and is currently resting on the floor of the Barents Sea, one mile deep, with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads still on board. The single Project 685 was developed to test technologies for Soviet 4th generation nuclear submarines. Although primarily intended as a developmental model, it was fully combat capable, but sank after a fire broke out in the aft engineering compartment on its first operational patrol.

The Komsomolets was able to surface after the fire started and remained afloat for approximately 5 hours before sinking. Of the 42 crewmembers who died, only 4 were killed by the fire and smoke, while 34 died of hypothermia, drowning in the frigid waters while awaiting rescue that did not arrive in time. Because of this shocking loss of life a very public enquiry was conducted and, as a result, many formerly classified details were revealed by the Soviet news media.


The Project 685 was designed by the Rubin Design Bureau in response to a challenge to develop an advanced submarine that could carry a mix of torpedoes and cruise missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads. The order to design the submarine was issued in 1966 and design was completed in 1974. The first (and only) keel was laid down on 22 April 1978 at Severodvinsk
Severodvinsk is a city in the north of Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia, located in the delta of the Northern Dvina River, west of Arkhangelsk. Administratively, it is incorporated as a town of oblast significance . Municipally, it is incorporated as Severodvinsk Urban Okrug. The city was founded as...

. K-278 was launched
Ship naming and launching
The ceremonies involved in naming and launching naval ships are based in traditions thousands of years old.-Methods of launch:There are three principal methods of conveying a new ship from building site to water, only two of which are called "launching." The oldest, most familiar, and most widely...

 on 3 June 1983 and commissioned
Ship commissioning
Ship commissioning is the act or ceremony of placing a ship in active service, and may be regarded as a particular application of the general concepts and practices of project commissioning. The term is most commonly applied to the placing of a warship in active duty with its country's military...

 on 28 December 1983.

K-278 had a double hull, the inner one being composed of titanium
Titanium is a chemical element with the symbol Ti and atomic number 22. It has a low density and is a strong, lustrous, corrosion-resistant transition metal with a silver color....

, which gave her an operating depth far greater than that of the best American submarines. The pressure hull was composed of seven compartments with the second and third protected by stronger forward and after bulkheads creating a "safety zone" in case of an emergency. An escape capsule was fitted in the sail
Sail (submarine)
In naval parlance, the sail or fin of a submarine is the tower-like structure found on the dorsal surface of submarines...

 above these compartments to enable the crew to abandon ship in the event of an underwater emergency. Initial Western intelligence estimates of K-278’s speed were based on the assumption that it was powered by a pair of liquid-metal
Liquid metal cooled reactor
A liquid metal cooled nuclear reactor, liquid metal fast reactor or LMFR is an advanced type of nuclear reactor where the primary coolant is a liquid metal. Liquid metal cooled reactors were first adapted for nuclear submarine use but have also been extensively studied for power generation...

Lead is a main-group element in the carbon group with the symbol Pb and atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, malleable poor metal. It is also counted as one of the heavy metals. Metallic lead has a bluish-white color after being freshly cut, but it soon tarnishes to a dull grayish color when exposed...

Bismuth is a chemical element with symbol Bi and atomic number 83. Bismuth, a trivalent poor metal, chemically resembles arsenic and antimony. Elemental bismuth may occur naturally uncombined, although its sulfide and oxide form important commercial ores. The free element is 86% as dense as lead...

 reactors. When the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 revealed that the submarine used a single OK-650b-3 conventional pressurized-water reactor
Pressurized water reactor
Pressurized water reactors constitute a large majority of all western nuclear power plants and are one of three types of light water reactor , the other types being boiling water reactors and supercritical water reactors...

, these speed estimates were lowered. (Note: The OK-650 reactor
OK-650 reactor
The OK-650 reactor is the nuclear fission reactor used singly to power the Soviet Navy'sProject 685 Плавник ,Project 971 Щука-Б , andProject 945 Барракуда, Кондор, and Марс submarines, and in pairs to power the...

 was also installed on Project 971 (Akula), Project 945, and Sierra-class submarines, and in pairs on the Project 941 (Typhoon) SSBN.)


According to Norman Polmar and Kenneth J. Moore - two Western experts on Soviet submarine design and operations - the Project 685's advanced design included many automated systems which, in turn, allowed for fewer crewmembers than would be expected for a submarine of its size. The manning table approved by the Ministry of Defense in 1982 called for a crew of just 57 men. This was later increased to 64: 30 officers, 22 warrant officers, and 12 petty officers and seaman.

Submarine K-278 Gets a Name

In October 1988, K-278 was honored by becoming one of the few Soviet submarines to be given an actual name: Комсомолец (Komsomolets, meaning "a member of the Young Communist League
Young Communist League
The Young Communist League was or is the name used by the youth wing of various Communist parties around the world. The name YCL of XXX was generally taken by all sections of the Communist Youth International.Examples of YCLs:...

"), and her commanding officer, Captain 1st Rank Yuriy Zelenskiy was honored for diving to a depth of 1020 meters (3,345 feet).


On 7 April 1989, while under the command of Captain 1st Rank Evgeny Vanin and running submerged at a depth of 335 metres (1,099.1 ft) about 180 kilometres (97.2 nmi) southwest of Bear Island (Norway), fire broke out in the aft compartment, and even though watertight doors were shut, the resulting fire spread through bulkhead
Bulkhead (partition)
A bulkhead is an upright wall within the hull of a ship or within the fuselage of an airplane. Other kinds of partition elements within a ship are decks and deckheads.-Etymology:...

 cable penetration
A firestop is a passive fire protection system of various components used to seal openings and joints in fire-resistance rated wall and/or floor assemblies, based on fire testing and certification listings....

s. The reactor scram
A scram or SCRAM is an emergency shutdown of a nuclear reactor – though the term has been extended to cover shutdowns of other complex operations, such as server farms and even large model railroads...

med and propulsion was lost. Electrical problems spread as cables burned through, and control of the boat was threatened. An emergency ballast tank
Ballast tank
A ballast tank is a compartment within a boat, ship or other floating structure that holds water.-History:The basic concept behind the ballast tank can be seen in many forms of aquatic life, such as the blowfish or argonaut octopus, and the concept has been invented and reinvented many times by...

 blow was performed and the submarine surfaced eleven minutes after the fire began. Distress calls were made, and most of the crew abandoned ship.

The fire continued to burn, fed by the compressed air
Compressed air
Compressed air is air which is kept under a certain pressure, usually greater than that of the atmosphere. In Europe, 10 percent of all electricity used by industry is used to produce compressed air, amounting to 80 terawatt hours consumption per year....

 system. Several hours after the boat surfaced, it sank again in 1680 metres (5,511.8 ft) of water. The commanding officer and four others who were still on board entered the escape capsule and ejected it. Only one of the five to reach the surface was able to leave the capsule and survive before it sank again in the rough seas.

Rescue aircraft
Air-sea rescue
Air-sea rescue is the coordinated search and rescue of the survivors of emergency water landings as well as people who have survived the loss of their sea-going vessel. ASR can involve a wide variety of resources including seaplanes, helicopters, submarines, rescue boats and ships...

 arrived quickly and dropped small rafts, but many men had already died from hypothermia
Hypothermia is a condition in which core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions which is defined as . Body temperature is usually maintained near a constant level of through biologic homeostasis or thermoregulation...

 in the 2 °C (35.6 °F) water of the Barents Sea
Barents Sea
The Barents Sea is a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean, located north of Norway and Russia. Known in the Middle Ages as the Murman Sea, the sea takes its current name from the Dutch navigator Willem Barents...

. The floating fish factory B-64/10 Aleksey Khlobystov (Алексей Хлобыстов) arrived 81 minutes after K-278 sank, and took aboard 25 survivors and 5 fatalities. In total, 42 men died in the accident.

Environmental threat

In addition to her eight standard torpedoes K-278 was carrying two torpedoes armed with nuclear warheads. Under pressure from Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

, the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 used deep sea submersibles
MIR (submersible)
Mir is a self-propelled Deep Submergence Vehicle. The project was initially developed by the USSR Academy of Sciences along with Design Bureau Lazurith. Later two vehicles were ordered from Finland...

 operated from the oceanographic research ship Akademik Mstislav Keldysh
Akademik Mstislav Keldysh
The R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh is a 6,240 ton Russian scientific research vessel. It is best known as the support vessel of the Mir submersibles. The vessel has made over 50 voyages, is owned by the Moscow-based Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Science and is...

to search for K-278. In June 1989, two months after the sinking, the wreck was located. Soviet officials stated that any possible leaks were insignificant and pose no threat to the environment.

Examination of the wreck in May 1992 revealed cracks along the entire length of the titanium hull, some of which were of 30-40 centimetres (12-16 inches) wide, as well as possible breaches in the reactor coolant pipes. An oceanographic survey of the area in August 1993 did suggest that waters at the site were not mixing vertically, and thus the sea life in the area was not being rapidly contaminated. That survey also revealed a hole over six metres (20 feet) wide in the forward torpedo compartment.

An expedition in mid-1994 revealed some plutonium
Plutonium is a transuranic radioactive chemical element with the chemical symbol Pu and atomic number 94. It is an actinide metal of silvery-gray appearance that tarnishes when exposed to air, forming a dull coating when oxidized. The element normally exhibits six allotropes and four oxidation...

 leakage from one of the two nuclear torpedoes. On 24 June 1995, Keldysh set out again from St. Petersburg to the Mike datum to seal the hull fractures in Compartment 1 and cover the nuclear warheads, and declared success at the end of subsequent expedition in July 1996. The Russian government has declared the risk of radioactive contamination of the environment negligible until 2015 or 2025.

In 1993, Vice Admiral (ret.) Chernov, commander of the submarine group of which the Komsomolets was part, founded the Komsomolets Nuclear Submarine Memorial Society
Komsomolets Nuclear Submarine Memorial Society
The Komsomolets Nuclear Submarine Memorial Society , literally Society Remembering Atomic Underwater Boat VMF Komsomolets is a charitable non-profit organization providing assistance to the families of Soviet and Russian submariners lost at sea....

, a charity to support the widows and orphans of his former command. Since then, the Society's charter has expanded to provide assistance to the families of all Soviet and Russian submariners lost at sea. Also, the 7th of April has become a day of commemoration for all submariners lost at sea.

External links

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