Jeffrey LewisOn That Burning Russian SSBN

The Russian magazine Vlast (in Russian) is reporting that a serious fire occurred aboard a Russian submarine in 29 December 2012 2011.

The fire was covered on television  news (YouTube is a goldmine) and someone placed a great many photos online at a military-oriented internet forum,  As in the case of the Plushkino traffic jam, I am amazed by the detail available in open sources about accidents involving Russian strategic forces.

As far as I can tell, what makes the report in Vlast so interesting is its careful detail, resulting in the revelation that it may have been armed in dry-dock:

В реальности Россия почти сутки находилась на пороге крупнейшей техногенной аварии со времен Чернобыля: в 6 км от Мурманска ярким пламенем горел атомный подводный стратегический ракетоносец К-84 “Екатеринбург”, на борту которого находились ракеты с ядерными боеголовками, торпеды и два атомных реактора.

That is, as far as I can tell, Russian for something like “largest man-made disaster since Chernobyl” as flames burned from a ballistic missile submarine  “carrying nuclear missiles, torpedoes and two nuclear reactors.”  I don’t think the authors are thinking the INES scale, by the way, just that failure to control the fire could have resulted in explosions that would have ripped open the reactor vessel, making a very nasty mess.

I should note that, should such an event occur on a US nuclear submarine, the outcome could also be very bad.  There was a substantial debate in the United States during the 1980s about the dangers from plutonium dispersal if a W76, which does not utilize insensitive high explosives, were to detonate if dropped or set on fire.  This debate culminated in the 1990 Report of the Panel on Nuclear Weapons Safety of the Committee on Armed Services House of Representatives, better known as the Drell Report.  (John Harvey and Stefan Michalowsk revived the argument in a monograph and  journal article.)



  1. Hairs (History)


    I’ve always been impressed at how quickly ACW picks up on significant events in the world of arms control, but knowing already that a Russian submarine will have a fire on “29 December 2012” must be your fastest ever! Either that or you’re lined up for a very lucrative career with any intelligence agency that could afford you. :-)

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Oh, crap! Typing to fast!

  2. John Schilling (History)

    The old-school high explosives in the W76 may not even be relevant, given the ten tons or so of HMX in the solid rocket motors below – along with other pyrotechic nastiness that adds up to almost fifty tons of DOT class 1.1 detonable high explosive.

    The R-29RM missiles on a Delta IV, use UDMH/MON liquid propellants, which are more likely to leak but less likely to detonate. Burns quite fiercely, of course, and any leaks are an obvious fire hazard. Liquid propellant leaking from a torpedo was probably responsible for the Kursk accident; from the apparent scale of the Yekaterinburg incident it is clear that the fire did not spread to any missiles still in their tubes this time.

    If there were missiles in the tubes, which I regard as still unknown. But this is something to keep an eye on. Even without warheads, large missiles are capable of almost nuclear-grade explosions, and you really don’t want to leave them around anyplace where e.g. dockyard workers are going to be playing with welding torches. More so with some propellants than others, but none of them are really safe.

    Acetylene torch + hundreds of tons of rocket propellant + live thermonuclear warheads, you really want to question the guy who didn’t tuck the missiles away in a bunker when the boat whent into drydock. I suspect Vlast may have let some hype into their journalism, but this could easily have been far worse than it was.

    • Captain Ned (History)

      Hmm, UDMN/MON with a pierced tank and some slop in the bottom of the tube. Reminds me of a certain Titan II silo in Kansas. Have that happen on a Delta-IV and “bad day” is the best you can hope for.

  3. blowback (History)

    This might have been news on December 29th but now not so much.

    From the BBC report:

    The Russian Emergency Ministry said there had been no leak of radiation, and nobody was injured.

    The Yekaterinburg submarine was being repaired when wooden structures in the dock caught fire and the flames spread to the vessel, say Russian media.

    Eleven fire crews and a navy launch fought the blaze, which has now been put out.

    Local media reports said a helicopter was also used.

    ‘Fire cannot spread’
    The Russian defence ministry said the nuclear reactors on the vessel were already shut down when the fire broke out.

    All weapons had also been removed from the submarine before it entered the dock, the ministry said.

    • blowback (History)

      BTW, does the Pinocchio-like character in the gallery suggest that Vlast thinks that the Russian government is lying?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      What is noteworthy and new is Vlast’s reporting, which I state explicitly in the post.

  4. bph (History)

    There are some interesting details on the Russian Military Reform blog. The fire sounds horrifying (15-20 meter tall flames!)

    They, too, report that the sub was armed in dock, but that a number of amazingly brave men removed some of the torpedos during the fire.

  5. Alex W. (History)

    This is only somewhat of a non-sequitur, but I was recently re-reading some Manhattan Project documents regarding the first bombs and their inherent “occupational safety risks.” This field report from the late Norman Ramsey is particularly harrowing, as he describes four planes crash-landing on the other end of Tinian on the night before the Nagasaki mission, creating intense gasoline fires:

    “It is in my opinion essential that any atomic bomb to be used in any fair quantity must be capable of being completely protected against even the slight possibility of a nuclear explosion being detonated by fire in take off of the aircraft. This will be particularly true later when atomic bombs are available in sufficient quantity that one can not safely gamble the safety of the base on merely the low probability of fire on a single takeoff… After witnessing such fires and after having sweated out one FM [Fat Man] atomic bomb take off, I can’t urge too strongly the importance of complete nuclear safety in take off for future models. … The one FM take off has been my most unpleasant experience since joining the project. … We all aged ten years until the plane cleared the Island.” (

    • John Schilling (History)

      And I’ll wager Ramsey wasn’t even thinking about continuous airborne alert at that time…

      Continuous seaborne alert, aka SSBN deterrence patrols, aren’t quite so hairy in that navies have gotten much better at keeping their ships from sinking in peacetime. But to the extent that naval operations are still dangerous, the two items at the top of the risk list are I believe submarines and fires. So, yeah, absolutely fireproof nukes on submarines, and the most fire-resistant missiles you can manage.

  6. Bruno (History)

    This continues to show the plaguing issues the Russian Second Strike capabilities are facing. No operational Borey and the Bulava just entering production.. I guess the Russian Military are getting concerned.

  7. thermopile (History)

    I’m scratching my head on this one.

    Can anyone confirm my suspicion that missiles and torpedoes are offloaded before drydock, to prevent just such a scenario?

    Of course, I’m speaking from US-based policy, which is based on safety and security. The Soviets have also been known to lift the reactor head with control rods still attached (, so I’m perfectly willing to be told that I’m wrong.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > Can anyone confirm my suspicion that missiles and torpedoes are offloaded before drydock, to prevent just such a scenario?

      The Vlast’ article has a section discussing this,

      Во-первых, постановка в док для осмотра с боезапасом практикуется часто. Иногда боезапас выгружают: окончательное решение принимается командованием “по ситуации”.

      Summary: Loaded boats are put into dock frequently. Sometimes they are unloaded, a decision to be made by the command according to the circumstances. (Comment: Eek!)

      Во-вторых, выгрузка и погрузка торпед и особенно ракет — процедура непростая и может длиться до двух недель. Она может существенно затянуть доковый осмотр (первоначально задуманный как краткосрочный) и сорвать график выхода ракетоносца на боевое дежурство.

      Summary: It takes some time to unload and load torpedoes and missiles, a complicated procedure that can last up to two weeks and can disrupt the planned deployment schedule.

  8. InsiderThreat (History)

    The boat was undergoing inspection at dry dock. The sonar dome of the Yekaterinburg was damaged as she struck a tug. The fire started as a result of repairs. By a “Bulgarian”, no less. Some say the forest fire was started to cover this up. It is not clear what Rear Admiral Volozhin ordered the boat to do with its torpedoes, based on Russian press. It appears he allowed her to come to inspection with torpedoes aboard. My understanding is missiles may be present at inspection, but not torpedoes.

    But, so what? Do folks seriously believe that if the torpedoes detonated it would trigger yield in the nuclear warheads? If so, is this meant to worry us all about SLBMs, generally, or just those in Russia?

    • Spruce (History)

      The risk isn’t nuclear detonation really. It’s more of akin to dirty bomb or something like the Palomares incident ( where the plutonium in the warhead is pread by either an external detonation and fire or a plutonium fire.

      If the sub was fully armed, it would’ve had 16 missiles with each up to 10 warheads with 100 kt each according to public information about the R-29RM missiles. So, taking a general estimate of 2-3 kg of plutonium per warhead (don’t know how much plutonium they actually have, just going based on the yield), that would be about 320-480 kg of plutonium. That makes quite a mess if you manage to spread it around with a fire.

  9. joshua (History)

    Perhaps this is just a preview of coming attractions.

    Allen, over to you…

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > В июне 2012 года ВМФ России возобновит непрерывное боевое патрулирование Мирового океана подводными лодками стратегического назначения. Об этом сообщил командующий Военно-морским флотом адмирал Владимир Высоцкий. «Уже 1 июня или чуть позже мы выходим снова на непрерывное боевое патрулирование ракетных крейсеров стратегического назначения», – сказал он. «Мы ждали этого события 26 лет», – добавил адмирал.

      In June 2012 the Russian Navy will resume uninterrupted/ continuous ocean SSBN patrols, said Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy. “By 1 June or a little later we will again go out on uninterrupted SSBN patrols”, he said. “We have awaited this event for 26 years”, the admiral added.

    • rwendland (History)

      I read somewhere, a while ago, that Russian Navy SSBNs can surface launch from certain anchorages. So not having uninterrupted SSBN patrols does not make the weapon system useless; it retains some level of deterrent. Does anyone know if this is true?

      I would be very interested to know if Trident subs are also capable of surface launch from anchorage. It has struck me as perhaps one option for UK less-than-continuous patrol posture. An option that I have never seen discussed – I would guess it is an option the Royal Navy would prefer not to see discussed.

  10. Allen Thomson (History)

    > I read somewhere, a while ago, that Russian Navy SSBNs can surface launch from certain anchorages. So not having uninterrupted SSBN patrols does not make the weapon system useless; it retains some level of deterrent. Does anyone know if this is true?

    It was true of some Northern Fleet SSBNs during the latter part of the Cold War. Dunno about now.

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