Soviet submarine K-19

Last updated
K-19 disabled in the North Atlantic on 29 February 1972
Naval Ensign of the Soviet Union.svgSoviet Union
Laid down: 17 October 1958
Launched: 8 April 1959
Completed: 12 November 1960
Commissioned: 30 April 1961
Decommissioned: 19 April 1990
Nickname(s): Hiroshima
Fate: Recycled at Naval Yard 85 Nerpa.
General characteristics
Class and type: Hotel-class submarine
  • 4,030 long tons (4,095 t) (surfaced)
  • 5,000 long tons (5,080 t) (submerged)
Length: 114 m (374 ft 0 in)
Beam: 9.2 m (30 ft 2 in)
Draft: 7.1 m (23 ft 4 in)
Propulsion: 2 × 70 MW VM-A reactors, 2 geared turbines, 2 shafts, 39,200 shp (29 MW)
  • 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph) (surfaced)
  • 26 knots (48 km/h; 30 mph) (submerged)
  • 35,700 mi (57,500 km) at 26 knots (48 km/h; 30 mph)
  • 32,200 mi (51,800 km) at 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph) (80% power)
Endurance: 60 days (limited by food, and physical health)
Test depth:
  • 250 m (820 ft) (test)
  • 300 m (980 ft) (design)
Complement: 125 officers and men
  • 3 × R-13 nuclear SRBM (650 km range) as a Hotel I
  • 3 × R-21 nuclear MRBM (1300 km range) as a Hotel II
  • 4 × 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes forward
  • 2 × 16 in (406 mm) tubes forward
  • 2 × 16 in (406 mm) tubes aft

K-19 was one of the first two Soviet submarines of the Project 658 class (NATO reporting name Hotel-class submarine), the first generation nuclear submarine equipped with nuclear ballistic missiles, specifically the R-13 SLBM. The boat was hastily built by the Soviets in response to United States' developments in nuclear submarines as part of the arms race. Before it was launched, 10 civilian workers and a sailor died due to accidents and fires. After it was commissioned, it had multiple breakdowns and accidents, several of which threatened to sink the submarine.

Soviet Union 1922–1991 country in Europe and Asia

The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a socialist state in Eurasia that existed 1922 to 1991. Nominally a union of multiple national Soviet republics, its government and economy were highly centralized. The country was a one-party state, governed by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital in its largest republic, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Other major urban centres were Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Alma-Ata, and Novosibirsk. It spanned over 10,000 kilometres east to west across 11 time zones, and over 7,200 kilometres north to south. It had five climate zones: tundra, taiga, steppes, desert and mountains.

Submarine Watercraft capable of independent operation underwater

A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation underwater. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability. The term most commonly refers to a large, crewed vessel. It is also sometimes used historically or colloquially to refer to remotely operated vehicles and robots, as well as medium-sized or smaller vessels, such as the midget submarine and the wet sub. The noun submarine evolved as a shortened form of submarine boat; by naval tradition, submarines are usually referred to as "boats" rather than as "ships", regardless of their size.

Hotel-class submarine nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine class

The Hotel class is the general NATO classification for a type of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine that was originally put into service by the Soviet Union around 1959. The Soviet designation was Project 658.


On its initial voyage on 4 July 1961, it suffered a complete loss of coolant to its reactor. A backup system included in the design was not installed, so the captain ordered members of the engineering crew to find a solution to avoid a nuclear meltdown. Sacrificing their own lives, the engineering crew jury-rigged a secondary coolant system and kept the reactor from a meltdown. Twenty-two crew members died during the following two years. The submarine experienced several other accidents, including two fires and a collision. The series of accidents inspired crew members to nickname the submarine "Hiroshima".

Nuclear meltdown severe nuclear reactor accident that results in core damage from overheating

A nuclear meltdown is a severe nuclear reactor accident that results in core damage from overheating. The term nuclear meltdown is not officially defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency or by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, it has been defined to mean the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor, and is in common usage a reference to the core's either complete or partial collapse.


In the late 1950s, the leaders of the Soviet Union were determined to catch up with the United States and began to build a nuclear submarine fleet. The boat was pushed through production and rushed through testing. It suffered from poor workmanship and was accident-prone from the beginning. [1] Many Russian naval officers felt that the ships were not fit for combat. [2] The crew aboard the first nuclear submarines of the Soviet fleet was provided with a very high quality standard of food including smoked fish, sausages, fine chocolates and cheeses, unlike the standard fare given the crews of other naval vessels. [3]

Construction deaths

K-19 was ordered by the Soviet Navy on 16 October 1957. [4] Her keel was laid on 17 October 1958 at the naval yard in Severodvinsk. Several workers died building the submarine: two workers were killed when a fire broke out, and later six women gluing rubber lining to a water cistern were killed by fumes. [3] While missiles were being loaded, an electrician was crushed to death by a missile-tube cover, and an engineer fell between two compartments and died. [2]

Soviet Navy naval arm of the Soviet Armed Forces

The Soviet Navy was the naval arm of the Soviet Armed Forces. Often referred to as the Red Fleet, the Soviet Navy was a large part of the Soviet Union's strategic plan in the event of a conflict with opposing super power, the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or another conflict related to the Warsaw Pact of Eastern Europe. The influence of the Soviet Navy played a large role in the Cold War (1945-1991), as the majority of conflicts centered on naval forces.

Keel Lower centreline structural element of a ship or boat hull

On boats and ships, the keel is either of two parts: a structural element that sometimes resembles a fin and protrudes below a boat along the central line, or a hydrodynamic element. These parts overlap. As the laying down of the keel is the initial step in the construction of a ship, in British and American shipbuilding traditions the construction is dated from this event. Only the ship's launching is considered more significant in its creation.

Keel laying formal recognition of the start of a ships construction

Laying the keel or laying down is the formal recognition of the start of a ship's construction. It is often marked with a ceremony attended by dignitaries from the shipbuilding company and the ultimate owners of the ship.

Gains unlucky reputation

The ship was launched and christened on 8 April 1959. [2] Breaking with tradition, a man—Captain 3rd Rank V. V. Panov of the 5th Urgent Unit—instead of a woman, was chosen to smash the ceremonial champagne bottle across the ship's stern. The bottle failed to break, instead sliding along the screws and bouncing off the rubber-coated hull. This is traditionally viewed among sea crews as a sign that the ship is unlucky. [5] Captain 1st Rank Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev was the first commander of the submarine. [2]

Ceremonial ship launching Ceremonial process of transferring a newly-built vessel to the water

Ceremonial ship launching is the process of transferring a vessel to the water. It is a naval tradition in many cultures, dating back thousands of years. It has been observed as a public celebration and a solemn blessing.

Propeller fan that transmits rotational motion into thrust

A propeller is a type of fan that transmits power by converting rotational motion into thrust. A pressure difference is produced between the forward and rear surfaces of the airfoil-shaped blade, and a fluid is accelerated behind the blade. Propeller dynamics, like those of aircraft wings, can be modelled by Bernoulli's principle and Newton's third law. Most marine propellers are screw propellers with fixed helical blades rotating around a horizontal axis or propeller shaft.

Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev Soviet submarine commander

Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev was a Russian submariner and a Captain First Rank in the Soviet Navy, notable as the commander of the ill-fated Soviet submarine K-19 in July 1961 during the Hotel class submarine's nuclear-reactor coolant leak. Zateyev and the actions of his crew managed to avert disaster, despite severe radiation exposure. After the event, Zateyev and his crew were sworn to secrecy by the Soviet government regarding the events that transpired, and were only permitted to reveal the story after its collapse. Zateyev later released his memoirs on the event, which were used as the basis for a number of literary works on the disaster, as well as a 2002 documentary and film. In these memoirs, Zateyev criticised the rushed production of Russia's first nuclear ballistic missile submarine. His and his crew's actions on July 4, 1961 earned the surviving crewmembers a joint nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in March 2006.

Early problems

In January 1960, confusion among the crew during a watch change led to improper operation of the reactor and a reactor-control rod was bent. The damage required the reactor to be dismantled for repairs. The officers on duty were removed and Captain Panov was demoted.

The submarine's ensign was hoisted for the first time on 12 July 1960. It underwent sea trials from 13 through 17 July 1960 and again from 12 August through 8 November 1960, travelling 17,347 kilometres (10,779 mi). The ship was considered completed on 12 November 1960. [2] After surfacing from a full-power run, the crew discovered that most of the hull's rubber coating had detached, and the entire surface of the boat had to be re-coated.

Naval ensign

A naval ensign is an ensign used by naval ships of various countries to denote their nationality. It can be the same or different from a country's civil ensign or state ensign.

A sea trial is the testing phase of a watercraft. It is also referred to as a "shakedown cruise" by many naval personnel. It is usually the last phase of construction and takes place on open water, and it can last from a few hours to many days.

During a test dive to the maximum depth of 300 m (980 ft), flooding was reported in the reactor compartment, and Captain Zateyev ordered the submarine to immediately surface, where it heeled over on its port side due to the water it had taken on. It was later determined that during construction the workers had failed to replace a gasket. [2] In October 1960, the galley crew disposed of wood from equipment crates through the galley's waste system, clogging it. This led to flooding of the ninth compartment, which filled one third full of water. In December 1960, a loss of coolant was caused by failure of the main circuit pump. Specialists called from Severodvinsk managed to repair it at sea within a week.[ citation needed ]

The boat was commissioned on 30 April 1961. The submarine had a total of 139 men aboard, including missile men, reactor officers, torpedo men, doctors, cooks, stewards, and several observing officers who were not part of the standard crew.

Nuclear accident

On 4 July 1961, under the command of Captain First Rank Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev, K-19 was conducting exercises in the North Atlantic off the south-east coast of Greenland. At 0415 local time the pressure in the starboard nuclear reactor's cooling system dropped to zero. The reactor department crew found a major leak in the reactor coolant system, causing the coolant pumps to fail. The boat could not contact Moscow and request assistance because a separate accident had damaged the long-range radio system. The control rods were automatically inserted by the emergency SCRAM system, but the reactor temperature rose uncontrollably. Decay heat from fission products produced during normal operation eventually heated the reactor to 800 °C (1,470 °F).

Making a drastic decision, Zateyev ordered the engineering section to fabricate a new coolant system by cutting off an air vent valve and welding a water-supplying pipe into it. This required the men to work in high radiation for extended periods. The accident released radioactive steam containing fission products that were drawn into the ship's ventilation system and spread to other compartments of the ship. The jury-rigged cooling water system successfully reduced the temperature in the reactor. [1]

The incident irradiated the entire crew, most of the ship, and some of the ballistic missiles on board. All seven members of the engineering crew and their divisional officer died of radiation exposure within the next month. Fifteen more sailors died within the next two years. [6]

Instead of continuing on the mission's planned route, the captain decided to head south to meet diesel-powered submarines expected to be there. Worries about a potential crew mutiny prompted Zateyev to have all small arms thrown overboard except for five pistols distributed to his most trusted officers. A diesel submarine, S-270, picked up K-19's low-power distress transmissions and joined up with it.

American warships nearby had also heard the transmission and offered to help, but Zateyev, afraid of giving away Soviet military secrets to the West, refused and sailed to meet S-270. He evacuated the crew and had the boat towed to its home base. After its return to port, the vessel contaminated a zone within 700 m (2,300 ft). Over the next two years, repair crews removed and replaced the damaged reactors. The repair process contaminated the nearby environment and the repair crew. The Soviet Navy dumped the original radioactive compartment into the Kara Sea. [7]

According to the government's official explanation of the disaster, the repair crews discovered that the catastrophe had been caused by a faulty welding incident during initial construction. They discovered that during installation of the primary cooling system piping, a welder had failed to cover exposed pipe surfaces with asbestos drop cloths (required to protect piping systems from accidental exposure to welding sparks), due to the cramped working space. A drop from a welding electrode fell on an unprotected surface, producing an invisible crack. This crack was subject to prolonged and intensive pressure (over 200 atmospheres), compromising the pipe's integrity and finally causing it to fail. [8]

Others disputed this conclusion. Retired Rear-Admiral Nikolai Mormul asserted that when the reactor was first started ashore, the construction crew had not attached a pressure gauge to the primary cooling circuit. Before anyone realized there was a problem, the cooling pipes were subjected to a pressure of 400 atmospheres, double the acceptable limit. K-19 returned to the fleet with the nickname "Hiroshima". [8]

On 1 February 2006, former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev proposed in a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee that the crew of K-19 be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their actions on 4 July 1961. [9]

Deceased crew members

Several crew members received fatal doses of radiation during repairs on the reserve coolant system of Reactor #8. Eight died between one and three weeks after the accident from severe radiation sickness. A person who receives a dose of 4 to 5 Sv (about 400-500 rem) over a short period has a 50% chance of dying within 30 days. [10]

NameRankDose of radiationDate of death
Boris KorchilovLieutenant54 Sv (Sievert) [11] = 5400 rem [12] 10 July 1961
Boris Ryzhikov Chief Starshina 8.6 Sv25 July 1961
Yuriy OrdochkinStarshina, 1st class11 Sv10 July 1961
Evgeny KashenkovStarshina, 2nd class10 Sv10 July 1961
Semyon Penkov Seaman 10 Sv18 July 1961
Nicolai SavkinSeaman11 Sv13 July 1961
Valery CharitonovSeaman11 Sv15 July 1961
Yuriy Povstyev Captain Lieutenant ,
Commander of the division of movement
7.5 Sv22 July 1961

    Fourteen other crew members died within two years. Many other crew members also received radiation doses exceeding permissible levels. [1] They underwent medical treatment during the following year. Many others experienced chest pains, numbness, cancer, and kidney failure. Their treatment was devised by Professor Z. Volynskiy and included bone marrow transplantation and blood transfusion. It saved, among others, Chief Lieutenant Mikhail Krasichkov and Captain 3rd class Vladimir Yenin, who had received doses of radiation that were otherwise considered deadly. For reasons of secrecy, the official diagnosis was not "radiation sickness" but "astheno-vegetative syndrome", a mental disorder. [13]

    Crew members decorated

    On 6 August 1961, 26 members of the crew were decorated for courage and valor shown during the accident.

    Later operational history

    On 14 December 1961, the boat was fully upgraded to the Hotel II (658м) variant, which included upgrading to R-21 missiles, which had twice the effective range of the earlier missiles.


    At 07:13 on 15 November 1969, K-19 collided with the attack submarine USS Gato in the Barents Sea at a depth of 60 m (200 ft). It was able to surface using an emergency main ballast tank blow. The impact completely destroyed the bow sonar systems and mangled the covers of the forward torpedo tubes. K-19 was able to return to port where it was repaired and returned to the fleet. Gato was relatively undamaged and continued her patrol. [14]


    On 24 February 1972, a fire broke out while the submarine was at a depth of 120 m (390 ft), some 1,300 km (700 nmi; 810 mi) from Newfoundland, in Canada. The boat surfaced and the crew was evacuated to surface warships except for 12 men trapped in the aft torpedo room. Towing was delayed by a gale, and rescuers could not reach the aft torpedo room because of conditions in the engine room. The fire killed 28 sailors aboard K-19 and two others who died after they were transferred to rescue ships. Investigators determined that the fire was caused by a hydraulic fluid leak onto a hot filter.

    The rescue operation lasted more than 40 days and involved over 30 ships. From 15 June through 5 November 1972, K-19 was repaired and put back into service.

    On 15 November 1972, another fire broke out in compartment 6, but it was put out by the chemical fire-extinguisher system and there were no casualties.


    On 25 July 1977, K-19 was reclassified in the Large Submarine class, and on 26 July 1979, she was reclassified as a communications submarine and given the symbol KS-19 (КС-19). On 15 August 1982, an electrical short circuit resulted in severe burns to two sailors; one, V. A. Kravchuk, died five days later.

    On 28 November 1985, the ship was upgraded to the 658s (658с) variant.


    On 19 April 1990 the submarine was decommissioned, and was transferred in 1994 to the naval repair yard at Polyarny. In March 2002, it was towed to the Nerpa Shipyard, Snezhnogorsk, Murmansk, to be scrapped. [1]

    In 2006, a section of K-19 was purchased by Vladimir Romanov, who once served on the submarine as a conscript, with the intention of "Turning it into a Moscow-based meeting place to build links between submarine veterans from Russia and other countries." So far, the plans remain on hold, and many of K-19's survivors have objected to them. [15]

    Theatre and film

    In 1969 writer Vasily Aksyonov wrote a play about the nuclear incident. This critical version is one of the few known works of unofficial literature in the former Soviet Union. [16]

    The movie K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, is based on the story of the K-19's first disaster. [17] The production company attempted in March 2002 to secure access to the boat as a set for its production, but the Russian Navy declined. The nickname "The Widowmaker" referred to by the movie was fictional. The submarine did not gain a nickname until the nuclear accident on 4 July 1961, when it was called "Hiroshima". [3]

    See also

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    1. 1 2 3 4 "Russia scraps 'the Widowmaker'". BBC News. 8 August 2003. Retrieved 30 May 2018.
    2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "1958-60: The Construction of K-19". K-19: The History. National Geographic. Archived from the original on 8 March 2014. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
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    4. Historical overview (in Russian)
    5. McNamara, Robert. "Ships, Champagne, and Superstition". Retrieved 26 May 2014.
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    10. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission "Lethal Dose" definition
    11. Convert from Roentgen (R) to rad or from Roentgen (R) to rem?
    12. СУБМАРИНА, СБЕРЕГШАЯ МИР TPYд. 21 November 2002. (in Russian)
    13. Bos, Carole. "K19 Widowmaker - Secret Heroes". Awesome Stories. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
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    16. "The poet Vasily Aksyonov" thesis of Herbert Gantschacher for obtaining the academic title "Master of Arts" at the Academy, today University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz, Re / 1653/1988, July 1988
    17. Soviet submarine K-19 on IMDb