Photos shed light on cause of fire aboard Russian nuclear submarine; questions of whether missiles onboard remain

Flames of up to 10 meters in height were reported at times

Publish date: January 4, 2012

Written by: Charles Digges

Photographs posted by a blogger of the Russian nuclear submarine that caught fire last week while in dry dock have shed more light on what possibly caused the intense 20-hour blaze and demystify some of the initial speculation surrounding the breath of the fire and its implications.

The photographs, which appear on show flames belching from the interior of the port side of the Yekaterinburg nuclear submarine while it was located for repairs in dry dock in Roslyakovo near Severomorsk 1500 kilometres north of Moscow. Blogger51 is an alternative news web site covering events in northeastern Russia not carried by the official press.

Another photograph shown by Blogger51 of the submarine, which was taken before the fire, shows that an enormous hole had been cut in the port side of the submarine’s forward section, making an opening the submarine’s hydro-acoustic chamber.

bodytextimage_picture1-3..jpg Photo: Blogger51

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin a former Russian submarine captain said after reviewing the photographs that the fire appears to have spread to the submarine’s hydro-acoustic chamber, located in the space between the inner and outer hulls of the submarine. The chamber is filled with water while the sub is at sea.

The navigational chamber is located very close to the torpedo compartment which is placed in the inner hull in the bow part of the submarine.

[picture2 {This is another Delta class submarine. Here, the division of the inner and outer hulls can be clearly seen, including the torpedo shafts protruding from the inner hull. The hydro-acoustic chamber is located below in between the inner and outer hull.}]

The official explanation for the fire was that unsafe welding works set a wooden scaffolding around the submarine ablaze, which then spread to the rubber outer hull of the submarine. The Emergency Service’s Ministry reported that it had submerged the submarine up to its conning tower on Thursday night, when the fire broke out, but battled smoldering flames between the outer hull and the inner hull until Friday morning.

According to the analysis by Nikitin, who is also chairman of Bellona’s Environmental Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg, this explanation is essentially untrue: There was no wooden scaffolding. The scaffolding was made of metal. The hydro-acoustic chamber, he said, is typically filled not only with water, but heavy oils and other contaminants that are found in the waters near naval ports. The antennas themselves also contain a certain amount of oil for isolation. In additions there are high-pressure air tanks located in between the inner and outer hulls.

This, said Nikitin would explain the duration and intensity of the fire: The oil residues that were left behind after the water was taken out of the acoustic chamber would have burned for a long time, and damaged air pressure tanks would have accounted for the intensity and height of the flames reported by witnesses via various internet social networks.

Flames of up to 10 meters at some periods and were seen from kilometers away as the fire blazed. The fire was initially reported to the local branch of the Emergency Service Ministry by civilians, not the navy.

Weapons onboard?

Reports today indicate that the submarine has left dry dock in Roslyakovo and is headed toward the Okolnaya base, to proceed further for extensive repairs at Severodvinsk in Arkhangelsk Oblast.

Okolnaya is a base equipped with cranes designed to remove ballistic missiles from submarines.

According to Nikitin, it is typical to leave weaponry aboard a submarine when it puts in for only short terms repairs, as was the case with the Yekaterinburg as it has now been removed from dry dock so quickly.

But whether the vessel contains intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads or simply test missiles remains in question.

The Defense Ministry when reached by Bellona on Wednesday maintained there were no weapons on board and would not confirm if the vessel was being moved to Okolnaya.

The 18,200 tonne Yekaterinburg, a Delta-IV class submarine, is built to carry 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles with four warheads a piece and 12 torpedoes.

President Dmitry Medvedev has charged Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin with conducting a thorough investigation into the Yekatriburg fire.

Videos of the fire are viewable here.