The Russian Nuclear Submarine Accident

Are nuclear submarines safe or a global threat?
July 11, 2019 Updated: July 11, 2019


Fourteen Russian sailors, most of whom were senior officers, died of smoke inhalation on July 1 as they worked to stop the flames from spreading through their vessel in the Barents Sea.

Details were unclear, but in addition to being tragic, it was important. President Vladimir Putin canceled his plans for the next day in order to meet with his defense minister, Sergey Shoygu.

Russian officials at first refused to say what type of vessel was involved in the accident. The Kremlin called the information “absolutely classified.” Then, on July 4, Russia broke three days of secrecy and confirmed that it had been a nuclear-powered submarine called Losharik AS-12 (named, because of its internal structure, after a Russian cartoon horse made of linked balls). Russian officials said the fire started while the deep-water submersible was exploring the seabed in Russian territorial waters. The boat was recovered and taken to a Russian base on the Barents Sea coast.

‘Planetary Catastrophe’

This was the worst Russian submarine accident since the 2008 death of 20 Russian sailors aboard the nuclear-powered Nerpa. An even-worse Russian naval disaster took place in August 2000, when 118 crew members died on the Kursk nuclear submarine, which sank in the Barents Sea after an explosion.

Among the 14 sailors who lost their lives in the recent incident were seven captains of the first rank and two “Heroes of Russia.” That’s an impressive crew. Defense Minister Shoygu said, “The submariners acted heroically in the critical situation. They evacuated a civilian expert from the compartment that was engulfed by fire and shut the door to prevent the fire from spreading further and fought for the ship’s survival until the end.”

A funeral service was held July 7. Captain Sergei Pavlov, an aide to the commander of Russia’s navy, praised the heroism of those who had perished, saying: “With their lives, they saved the lives of their colleagues, saved the vessel and prevented a planetary catastrophe.”

“Planetary catastrophe?” Was this hyperbole intended to ease the pain of those who had lost loved ones, or had the world truly teetered on the verge of an enormous disaster? That’s worth some thought.

As a starting point, Kremlin representative Dmitry Peskov said there was no indication that the accident posed a broader threat. “As for the reactor, there are no problems with that,” he was quoted as saying. Due to its proximity to the location of the accident, Norway was very concerned, but it didn’t detect any increased radiation in the water.

So, without disregarding the reality that the Russian statement came from a Russian spokesman, it seems unlikely that the recent incident actually presents a planetary threat. What, however, are the dangers posed by nuclear submarines (other than the risk of their weapons being used)?

Lost Submarines

“From the late 1950s through 2001, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, built over 250 nuclear vessels. … In addition to nuclear submarines (including 81 that carried ballistic missiles, or SSBNs), the Soviet nuclear fleet included four guided missile cruisers, a small number of scientific research, support, and space-tracking vessels, and seven civilian icebreakers,” according to the nonprofit organization Nuclear Threat Initiative. While the Russians have downsized their fleet in recent years, they still have many nuclear-powered ships. The United States has at least 68 commissioned nuclear submarines.

This time, the Russians recovered their damaged Losharik submarine. Since World War II, however, nine nuclear-powered submarines have been lost to the bottom of the sea (seven Soviet or Russian and two American). Either it’s unknown exactly where they are or no one knows how to bring them back to the surface.

Granted, no one ever wants a nuclear reactor to go missing, but how dangerous is it? In all nine cases, it’s reliably thought that the submarines are at the bottom of the ocean, along with their nuclear reactors. As frightening as that is, apparently that doesn’t present a highly dangerous threat to the world.

First of all, builders of any vessel that is powered by a nuclear reactor take all possible precautions and use the highest level of security to ensure that the crew won’t be exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. So, the reactors are strong.

Second, when it comes to radiation, water is a good insulator. It absorbs the neutrons released in a fission reaction and serves as a protective barrier around the nuclear reactor. The deeper the reactor sinks, the further it is from human life, and, therefore, the less the risk of harm to humans.

Of course, there are other dangers. If a submarine sinks, the chance of an immediate release of its nuclear material is slim, but fuel (which is rich in uranium) would eventually leak. Aquatic life in the immediate area of such a leak would be at high risk, as would be any humans who happened to be in the vicinity. Seawater, however, has a natural concentration of uranium, and overall, losing a nuclear reactor at sea is far less dangerous than losing control over one on land or in the atmosphere.

International Cooperation

Earlier this year, the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the Outrider Foundation released a report entitled “Silent Dangers: Assessing the Threat of Nuclear Submarines.” It examined both the acute and chronic costs of submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors and estimated the impact of breakdowns on the environment and on geopolitical security. It concluded that their prevalence does indeed pose a threat.

The report ultimately recommended the establishment of an international forum of the nuclear submarine nations, with four objectives: “(1) the collection of quality data on nuclear submarine failures, (2) the sharing of best practices in submarine safety, (3) multilateral efforts to reclaim lost nuclear submarines, and (4) normative codes of conduct to curb the irresponsible use of nuclear submarines.”

Those objectives could be hugely important to international security. Realistically, however, the scientific and military secrets that surround nuclear submarines often impede international cooperation. So what can be done? One possibility, maybe the only realistic one, is to break through the secrecy issue.

According to The Washington Post, “President Trump has ordered his administration to prepare a push for new arms-control agreements with Russia and China after bristling at the cost of a 21st-century nuclear arms race.”

In December 2018, he wrote on Twitter that he wants “a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.” Putin has also recently expressed his desire to engage in arms-control talks with the United States. If they can agree on a larger verification regime that puts safety over secrecy, an agreement on submarines will become much more realistic.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is set to expire in February 2021, but it can be extended by executive agreement for up to five years. That treaty includes a verification regime, and a five-year extension would be a step in a good direction. The extension could create time and opportunity for the United States and Russia to come together (perhaps adding other nuclear nations), adopt best practices that minimize risks for nuclear submarines, and prevent us from teetering near the edge of a “planetary catastrophe.”

At least we can hope.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ronald J. Rychlak
Ronald J. Rychlak
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).