Dubbed “the Soviet Union’s deepest secret of the Cold War” during a documentary, the K-19 submarine was built in just one year as the Cold War reached its boiling point in the Sixties. Armed with three R-13 SLBM nuclear ballistic missiles, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded his apparent state-of-the-art fleet addition be launched in 1961 for a training mission. Under the lead of Captain Nikolai Zateyev, the botched vessel took part in a covert operation where its job was to imitate a US vessel of the same kind orchestrating an attack on the USSR. It was to travel from the Norwegian Sea, into the North Atlantic, around Iceland and head back to Soviet territory.
However, it was revealed during Amazon Prime’s 1990 documentary “K-19 – Doomsday Submarine” how it suffered dire consequences.
The narrator explained: “The Soviet’s newest and deadliest submarine is on her first combat patrol in the Norwegian Sea.
“Under the command of Nikolai Zateyev, K-19 is state-of-the-art technology.
“US President [John F.] Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev are closer than ever to all-out war over the Berlin crisis.
The Soviet Union suffered a catastrophic failure
The K-19 submarine was state-of-the-art
Then, deep in NATO waters, a catastrophic failure hits one of K-19’s reactors
“Then, deep in NATO waters, a catastrophic failure hits one of K-19’s reactors.
“Radiation spreads throughout the submarine and a full-scale meltdown is imminent.”
On July 4, 1961, the pressure in the starboard nuclear reactor’s cooling system dropped to zero, near the coast of Greenland.
The crew found a major leak in the reactor coolant system, causing the coolant pumps to fail.
The submarine could not request assistance because a separate accident had damaged the long-range radio system.
The control rods were automatically inserted by the emergency system, but the reactor temperature rose uncontrollably.
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 submarine went on a mission in NATO waters
The sub was under the control of Captain Nikolai Zateyev
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.
Instead of continuing on the mission’s planned route, the captain decided to head south to meet diesel-powered submarines expected to be there.
An S-270 picked up K-19’s low-power distress transmissions and joined up with it.
World War 3 flashpoints
US warships nearby 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 all of the crew except for himself and ordered the nuclear submarine to be torpedoed with him on board, should the US try to intervene.
However, he safely made it back to friendly waters untouched.
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, and after its return to port, the vessel contaminated a zone within 700m.
Over the next two years, repair crews removed and replaced the damaged reactors.
The process contaminated the nearby environment and the repair crew.