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Soviet submarine K-278

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Komsomolets.jpg
K-278 Komsomolets


The K-278 Submarine Komsomolets
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Soviet naval pennant

Ordered:
Laid down: 22 April 1978
Launched: 9 May 1983
Commissioned: 31 December 1984
Fate: lost 7 April 1989
Homeport: Bolshaya Lopatka at Zapadnaya Litsa
Stricken:
General Characteristics
Displacement: 4400-5750 tons surfaced, 6400-8000 tons submerged
Length: 117.5 metres
Beam: 10.7 metres
Draught: 8-9 metres
Propulsion: one 190-MWt OK-650 b-3 pressurised water reactor, two 45000 shp steam turbines, one shaft
Speed: 14 knots surfaced, 26-30 knots submerged
Range:
Depth: 1000 metres (3300 feet) operating, 1250 metres (4100 feet) test, 1500 (5000 feet) metres design
Complement: 33 officers, 21 warrant or petty officers, 15 men
Armament: two SS-N-15 Starfish or SS-N-16 Stallion missiles, six 533-mm (21-inch) torpedo tubes

K-278 Komsomolets was a Project 685 Плавник (Plavnik, meaning "fin", also known by its NATO reporting name of "Mike"-class) nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Soviet Navy.

Project 685 was tasked with developing an advanced submarine that could carry a mix of torpedoes and cruise missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads. The first designs were developed in the 1960s, but construction did not start until the first (and only) keel was laid down on 22 April 1978 at Severodvinsk. K-278 was launched on 9 May 1983 and commissioned in late 1984.

K-278 had a double hull, the inner one being composed of titanium, which gave her an operating depth far below that of the best American submarines. An escape capsule was fitted in the sail 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 she was powered by a pair of liquid-metal lead-bismuth reactors. When the Soviet Union revealed that the submarine used a single conventional pressurized-water reactor, these estimates were lowered.

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"), and her commanding officer, Evgeniy Demitrievich Chernov, was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for diving to a depth of more than 1300 meters (4265 feet).

On 7 April 1989, while still under Chernov's command and running submerged about 180 kilometres (100 nautical miles) southeast of Bear Island off the coast of Norway, fire broke out in the aft compartment, and even though watertight doors were shut, the resulting fire spread through bulkhead cable penetrations. The reactor scrammed and propulsion was lost. Electrical problems spread as cables burned through, and control of the boat was threatened. An emergency ballast tank 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 system. and several hours after the boat surfaced, she sank again in 1500-1700 meters (5000-5600 feet) of water. The commanding officer and four others who were still on board entered the escape capsule and ejected it, but it was partially flooded and filled with toxic gasses. Only one of the five survived to reach the surface.

Rescue aircraft arrived quickly and dropped small rafts, but many men had already died from hypothermia in the 2C (36°F) water of the Barents Sea. The ship Aleksandr Khlobystsov arrived 81 minutes after K-278 sank, and took aboard 25 survivors and 5 fatalities. In total, 42 men died in the accident.

In addition to her eight standard torpedoes, K-278 was carrying two torpedoes armed with nuclear warheads. The site of the accident is one of the richest fishing areas in the world, and the possible leakage of plutonium from the torpedoes' warheads or enriched uranium and fission products from the reactor could destroy the local fisheries, costing billions of dollars annually. Under pressure from Norway, the Soviet Union used submersibles operated from the oceanographic rescue ship Akademik Mstislav Keldysh 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 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 survey did suggest that waters at the site were not mixing vertically, and thus the sea life in the area was not being rapidly contaminated. However, that survey also revealed a hole over six metres (20 feet) wide in the forward torpedo compartment.

An expedition during the summer of 1994 revealed some plutonium leakage from one of the two nuclear torpedoes. That expedition was successful in sealing some of the holes in the submarine's hull. On 24 June 1995 yet another mission set out to seal the hull fractures, and declared success at the end of 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 founded the Komsomolets Nuclear Submarine Memorial Society, 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.

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