Investigators finger questionable culprit in Russian Pacific Fleet nuclear sub disaster

Akula-klassen angrepsubåter er de mest moderne i Nordflåten.
Foto: Moscoop

Publish date: November 17, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

The death of 20 people aboard the Nerpa nuclear submarine, who were killed when the vessel’s fire suppression system was tripped during sea trials, is being blamed on a crew member who - according to a source close to the investigation - entered erroneous data into a temperature sensor.

The source told Russia’s premier business daily Kommersant that sailor Dmitry Grobov, who serves in the Russian Navy, is suspected of having entered erroneous temperature date for the submarine’s living quarters into the submarine’s temperature sensors, which resulted in the submarine’s emergency fire suppression system being tripping, releasing Freon gas into the bow compartment, killing 20 and injuring 21.

Yet the accounting by the source fails to address many questions raised by interviews given last week by members of the Nerpa crew who survived the accident – the worst Russian submarine accident since the Kursk sank in August 2000, killing all 118 sailors aboard, and giving the Russian Navy a black eye for its week’s worth of unsuccessful attempts to reach crew members who survived the initial sinking.

Their accounts pointed by and large to a malfunction in the warning system of the fire suppression system that would have warned them to put on their emergency breathing apparatus.

Kommersant quoted its anonymous source as saying that the submarine’s Rotor data block – which is similar in operation to an aircraft’s black box flight data recording system -indicated that: “The temperature increased sharply all of a sudden and the fire suppression system reacted as programmed.”

The source said that Grobov was on watch at the time the incident occurred and that the code to the fire safety system was written on top of the equipment in pencil.

Former submariners quoted by Kommersant said that Grobov most likely acted by mistake, and was only fulfilling orders of one of the commanders on board the Nerpa, and that they failed to look after his work.

Grobov has served on submarines since 2003, and sources interviews by Kommersant that he should have had the knowledge that fulfilling his apparent orders would have had lethal consequences.

Grobov has reportedly confessed to entering the data that increased the temperature in the bow section of the Nerpa. He was taken into custody by the Pacific Fleet Prosecutors’ office on Novembert 13th. If he is convicted, he faces seven years in prison.

The submarine’s reactor was not affected by the accident, which took place in the nose of the submarine, and radiation levels on board remained normal. The Nerpa returned to port in the Far East Primorye Region after the accident under its own power, accompanied by rescue vessels.

Sea trials problematic
The sea trials of the Nerpa – and Akula II class attack submarine- were problematic from the beginning when it set to sea in late October with a combined naval and civilian crew from the Amur Shipbuilding Yard of 208 people – almost three times as many as the 73 crew members that are ordinarily on an Akula II.

Seventeen of those who perished were members of the civilian sea trial crew. According to naval experts, including Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, a former sub captain who heads Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, sea trial crewmembers tend to be problematic in terms of experience and safety at sea.

Many of those who died could possibly have been saved by the personal breathing apparatus they are required to carry at all times – or even by stationary breathing posts that are stationed throughout nuclear submarines. But instructions given to sea trial crews are often ignored.

"I know from my own experience that instructions given to industrial personnel taking part in tests are a formality," the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted retired naval Captain Nikolai Markovtsev as saying.

"Quite often they walk through a sub like they walk through their plant, without carrying breathing kits," he said last week.

The experience gap would have been increased by the fact that the Amur Shipbuilding Yard had not put a ship to sea in 15 years – meaning very few personnel working there had ever been part of a trial crew.

The construction of the Nerpa was halted in 1991 due to lack of funding, and complete in the past few years. Bellona’s Nikitin said that mothballing the construction of the sub for such a long time and then resuming it and putting the Nerpa to sea was a dangerous decision, given the equipment and component fatigue that would have effected the vessel for the 15 years it sat dormant.

Kommersant account leaves survivors’ questions lingering

The accounting given to Kommersant by the undisclosed source fails to account for general human error and many other errors in the operation of the fire suppression system that were reported by survivors of the disaster.

According to survivors interviewed by Russian media last week, the crucial failure was that the alarm indicating that Freon gas was about to be dumped sounded after – not before – the fire suppression system went into operation.

Regardless of the trial crew’s lack of experience, none of them would have had time to don their breathing apparatus if the survivors’ accounting that the siren blast warning crew members to put them on sounded after they were showered with suffocating Freon gas.

Indeed, members of the investigative commission had said last week that breathing kits had been available for everyone aboard the submarine.

Russia naval officials reached Tuesday by Bellona Web would not comment on the Kommersant report or the account by survivors that the fire suppression system malfunctioned, saying that the investigation was ongoing.

Last week, Captain Igor Dygalo, chief spokesman for the Russian Navy, told Russia’s Interfax newswire that there had been no fire and that the fire system was somehow tripped in error.

But one Naval official, who asked that his name not be used, indicated in a telephone interview that, “the account that this Grobov put in wrong data will probably come to be the official version.”
The information given to Kommersant by its unidentified source was being widely repeated by Western and other Russian media by Monday evening.

Grobov arrested on November 13th
Investigators announced earlier in the month that they had brought criminal charges against Grobov, and that he faced up to seven years in jail.

"Military investigators have determined the person who activated, without permission or any particular reason, a fire safety system on board the submarine. He is a sailor from the crew, and he has already confessed," Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigation Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office, said on November 13th, RIA Novosti reported.

Based in the Russian Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the Amur Shipbuilding Plant which built that Nerpa has built 270 vessels, and another 55 nuclear submarines besides the Nerpa since it was established in 1936.

According to Russian and Indian media and the Indian Navy, the Nerpa was intended for lease to the Indian Navy within the next few months.

The Russian Navy has, however, repeatedly denied that this was the case, despite comments it made to RIA Novosti in October when the Nerpa set out for sea trials.