First, the good news.
A fire aboard the Russian Federation’s Ekaterinburg nuclear submarine has apparently been extinguished.
The bad news - that’s about all that is certain about the incident.
The fire broke out on the Project 667BDRM Delfin-class Ekaterinburg Delta-IV nuclear submarine, undergoing planned repairs, at a ship repair plant in the town of Roslyakovo in the Murmansk region at around 4 p.m. Moscow Time.
Russian Federation Severnoflot (Northern Navy) spokesman Vadim Serga remarked as the incident was underway, "Wooden scaffolding around the submarine's hull caught fire during planned repairs. The flame spread to the submarine's outer hull. The possibility of the blaze penetrating into the submarine is out of the question. There is no threat to on-board technical equipment. Measures are being taken to extinguish the flames."
Eleven fire brigades, two helicopters, a navy firefighting launch and tugboats were dispatched to the scene. Witnesses said that flames rose 30 feet above the stricken vessel. Russkoe Informatsionnoe Agentsvto news agency quoted a source at the shipyard stating that a decision had been taken to submerge the Ekaterinburg’s hull, leaving only its conning tower above water level, to put out the flames.
The Russian Navy admitted that nine people, including crewmen and firefighters, were sent to a naval hospital suffering from burns.
Not surprisingly, information emanating from the Russian Ministry of Defense about the incident is contradictory, as the Defense Ministry's press service reported, "Before the submarine was taken into the dock for planned repairs, its reactor had been switched off and is currently safe" even as speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in the Russian Navy Main Staff Russia’s Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei news agency said that
the Ekaterinburg’s two 180-megawatt VM-4 pressure water reactors had been switched off AFTER the submarine's outer hull caught fire before adding soothingly, "There is no threat to on-board technical equipment. Measures are being taken to put out the flames."
Further reassuring the public, Russian Ministry of Defense officials also said that all weapons had been removed from the submarine before it entered the dock and that there was no need to evacuate Roslyakovo residents, as the radiation level at the scene was normal. But other media in Murmansk reported that 12 torpedoes and 16 missiles remained onboard at the time of the incident.
The Ekaterinburg is a one of the Russian Navy’s seven Delta-IV-class nuclear submarines, which are all deployed in the Northern Fleet. Commissioned by the Soviet Union in 1985, the Ekaterinburg carries 16 intercontinental ballistic SLBM R-29RMU Sineva missiles, each of which carries four MIRV nuclear warheads.
Russian Federation Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told journalists, "An (investigative) commission of the Russian Navy has flown to Roslyakovo on orders from the Defense Minister," while Central Military Investigative Department spokesman Sergei Zhukov added, "Currently there are investigators from the Military Investigative Department (of the Severomorsk Garrison) on the site of the incident. They have started questioning witnesses." A case has been opened under article 347 of the Russian Federation’s Criminal Code, "Destruction of or damage to military property due to negligence."
The Bellona Foundation, an international environmental NGO based in Norway executive director and nuclear physicist Nils Bohmer said that the uncertainty of whether the fire was external to the submarine or had also spread to the inside was troubling.
“We know that scaffolding and rubber on the exterior of the submarine were affected but the implication that there are still ‘pockets of fire’ that may be on the inside of the sub is extremely dangerous to the reactor and could lead to a release of radiation,” he said.
“Fire aboard nuclear submarines are among the worst case scenarios” precisely because the vulnerability of the nuclear fuel. We still do not know if there has been any radiation spread and still don’t know if the fire is out.” It might be noted that the Bellona Foundation has offices not only in Oslo, Brussels and Washington D.C., but St. Petersburg and Murmansk as well.
Safety on Russian Navy submarines is a sensitive issue for the military in the wake of the sinking of the Kursk in August 2000, which drowned all 118 crewmen.
Like so many other nuclear incidents from Chernobyl to Fukushima, the Ekaterinburg fire indicates that officials surrounding nuclear incidents not only downplay the risks, but seemingly are incapable of telling the straightforward truth.
Were the reactors on or off at the time the fire broke out?
Were the 16 SLBM R-29RMU Sineva missiles and torpedoes onboard or offloaded before the conflagration began?
What was the true extent of the blaze, which was apparently so severe in igniting the submarine’s outer anechoic tiles that the hull had to be submerged?
Did the blaze in fact threaten the boat’s twin VM-4 pressure water reactors?
No doubt the Russian Navy’s investigative commission will uncover the answers –whether they will share them with the Russian public and the rest of the world remains to be seen.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com