Russia’s deputy prime minister indirectly admits ‘armaments’ were aboard nuclear sub blaze in December – Bellona demands an accounting

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The deputy prime minister had previously vociferously denied this in both Russian and international media – even though evidence discovered by Bellona at the time suggested otherwise.

“It was a gross violation of existing regulations for the repairs of nuclear submarines specifically with armaments onboard,” Rogozin told reporters – but did not specify the types of weapons onboard the sub at the time, according to the official ITAR-TASS news agency.

Evidence that has emerged since the fire, however, suggests that the burning vessel was loaded not only with nuclear missiles but torpedoes as well.

Had Russia’s Emergency Services Ministry – which was primarily responsible for handling the crisis – not extinguished the flames in time, the fire could have erupted into a radiation-spewing explosion six kilometers from the 300,000-strong population of Murmansk and 200 kilometers from the Norwegian border.

The Yekaterinburg Delta IV class submarine – capable of carrying 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles with up to ten nuclear warheads apiece and 12 torpedoes – caught fire in Roslyakovo when welding works reportedly went awry, though the real cause of the fire remains unknown. The fire was concentrated in the bow area of the vessel.

The Yekaterinburg was transferred after the fire was extinguished, Bellona learned in January, to Okolnaya, another Arctic base located north of Severomorsk, which has the fixed pier and crane capacity for the long and labor intensive process of removing ballistic missiles.

Bellona demands an official accounting from Moscow

Rogozin’s announcement and reports in Russian newspapers prompted Bellona President Frederic Hauge to demand an official response to Norway about whether nuclear weapons had been aboard the submarine at the time of the fire.

“Bellona has reviewed thorough documentation of the fire, and we think there are so many serious issues that we are now asking Norwegian authorities require an official response from Russia as to whether there really were nuclear weapons on board,” he said.

Hauge went on to say that other of Rogozin’s statements about the fire issued earlier this month made oblique references to weapons on the sub. ITAR-TASS quoted Rogozin as saying that rules governing work aboard nuclear submarines “especially when there are armaments on board” had been contravened in the case of the Yekaterinburg.  

Potentially lethal communications breakdown

Hauge responded to this earlier statement by Rogozin today by saying Norway should have been notified of the work taking place on the Yekaterinburg.

“This statement by Rogozin makes clear that [international] notification procedures did not work. Therefore, we are now contacting Norwegian government authorities to express our concerns through formal channels,” Hauge said.

“We expect much better notification procedures between Norway and Russia in case something similar happens in the future,” he said.

The two countries to have an agreement in place whereby either side is to warn the other should any works take place that might lead to radiation or other pollution hazards. As a rule, communication from the Russian side has flowed only in dribs and drabs and far too late.

What precipitated the break in the silence?

Rogozin’s climb down from the official line that no weapons were aboard the Yekaterinburg came Tuesday after a heavily publicized investigative article in the influential Russian weekly magazine Kommersant Vlast – published by the business newspaper Kommersant – appeared over the weekend.

It cited anonymous Russian naval officials as saying the Yekaterinburg had indeed had weapons on board while it was in dry dock.

The story, saying that both nuclear missiles and torpedoes had been aboard the submarine during the fire, dominated Russia’s news cycle yesterday.

Early misdirection by Russian officials

The fire was confined to the bow of outer hull of the submarine, said Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, a former Russian submarine captain, who reviewed photos of the blaze released anonymously by a reliable Murmansk area blogger, Blogger51, in early January.

This much the Defense Ministry confirmed at the time of the fire – whose 10-meter plume was noticed as far as 10 kilometers away and was initially reported to the local Emergency Services Ministry division by civilians.

Nikitin, who is also chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg, said upon reviewing the photographs that the fire’s origin had been the submarines’ port side hydro-acoustic chamber – a navigational center still located on the outer hull, but packed with antennas filled with flammable oils and highly pressurized air tanks, which most likely fanned the severity and duration of the flams.

The Defense Ministry – while maintaining no weapons were on board – attributed the duration of the blaze, which injured seven sailors and two Emergency Services workers, to the slow burn of the rubber outer hull. Such hulls are made of rubber to increase a sub’s stealth.  

The Defense Ministry also attributed the cause of the fire to welding works on a wooden scaffolding going awry.

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The Kommersant Vlast article indicated that sailors worked to manually remove the torpedoes from their compartments when the fire broke out.

Typical procedure could lead to nuclear catastrophe

As shocking as Rogozin’s announcement is after more than a month’s worth of silence, Nikitin in January indicated that it is not uncommon to leave nuclear weapons aboard a submarine if it puts in for short duration repairs. During longer-term repairs, said Nikitin, all missiles are removed.

Six Delta IVs constitute the backbone of the Russian nuclear shield.

The Yekaterinburg was on active patrol duty when it landed in dry dock, Bellona has learned, meaning only three of Russia’s strategic defense subs were on active duty during the fire. The Yekaterinburg was therefore likely expected to return to patrol in short order to compensate for the other two subs that were in repairs.

Nevertheless, this typical procedure is fraught with dangers, Hauge said.

“Had there been a danger of nuclear explosion Russia should have evacuated huge portions of the Kola Peninsula, which would have affected hudreds of thousands – Russia ignored this,” said Hauge.

“We’re talking about a very serious incident only 200 kilometers from the Norwegian border. At worst, it could have meant radioactive emissions reaching Norway in two hours, so the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs must actively to get the answers Norway is entitled to,” he said.  

Worst case scenario

If the fire had not been dealt with quickly, the torpedoes in the front chamber of the submarine would have detonated first. Many Russian fire and resuce workers would have been killed and the blaze’s intesity would have increased.

The fire would have spread to the missle compartment, which also would have detonated as a result of the high temperatures. An explosiong would have then damaged the Yekaterinburg’s two nuclear reactors, resulting in a release of radiation into the atmosphere.

Murmansk should have been evacuated along with other towns in the surrounding area. The fire occurred just prior to Russia’s New Year’s holidays, and an evacuation would have causes panic and chaos. Yet had things gone as they very possibly could have, even more explosions releasing more radioactivity could have resulted, making – as shown in Fukushima – efforts to extinguish the fire even more arduous, as radioactivity continued to spread.

Rogozin said a special military-industrial commission had been established to launch a probe into the causes of the incident, said ITAR-TASS. The panel has the authority to specify violations that may have occurred but not to bring criminal charges.

“We have our own list of culprits, but we can make it public only after we receive investigation results from the Investigative Committee,” Rogozin was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying.

Damage estimates to the Yekaterinburg come to some 500 million roubles (€12.7 million).

Rogozin also urged a stepping up of the commissioning of Russia’s new class of submarines, the Borei and Yasen classes, complaining that their launches are at least six months behind schedule, ITAR-TASS reported.

Ruth Lothe contributed to this report.

Charles Digges