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The Widow Makers - Soviet Submarine Disasters (1994)

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  • Description: The Widow Makers - Soviet Submarine Disasters (1994)
    Channel 4

    Charts the history of the disasters to Soviet nuclear submarines since 1961 which have cost over 200 lives and the decaying hulks lying off the Norwegian coast which continue to pose a threat with their nuclear reactors.

    On 4 July 1961, under the command of Captain First Rank Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev, K-19 was conducting exercises in the North Atlantic close to Southern Greenland when she developed a major leak in her reactor coolant system, causing the water pressure in the aft reactor to drop to zero and causing failure of the coolant pumps. A separate accident had disabled her long-range radio system, so she could not contact Moscow. The reactor temperature rose uncontrollably, reaching 800 °C — almost the melting point of the fuel rods — and the chain reactions continued despite the control rods being inserted via a SCRAM mechanism. The reactor continued to heat up as coolant is still required during shutdown until the reactions decrease. Despite Zateyev's and others' earlier requests, no backup cooling system had been installed.

    The captain was concerned that the nuclear emissions resulting from the accident -- and any possible explosion -- might be interpreted by the United States as a pre-emptive strike and trigger a nuclear war. The captain was also very keen to save the ship and his crew.

    As a cooling back-up system had not been installed, Zateyev made a drastic decision: a team of seven engineering officers and crew worked for extended periods in high-radiation areas to implement a new coolant system, by cutting off an air vent valve and welding a water-supplying pipe into it. Since the ship carried chemical suits, instead of radiation suits, they were certain to be lethally contaminated. But the repair team was not aware of that, believing the suits they wore would protect them from contamination. The released radioactive steam, containing fission products, was drawn into the ventilation system and spread to other sections of the ship. The cooling water pumped from the reactor section worked well.

    The incident contaminated the crew, parts of the ship, and some of the ballistic missiles carried on board; the entire crew received substantial doses of radiation, and all seven men in the repair crew died of radiation exposure within a week, and twenty more within the next few years. The captain decided to head south to meet diesel submarines expected to be there, instead of continuing on the mission's planned route. Worries about a potential crew mutiny prompted Zateyev to have all small arms thrown overboard except for five pistols distributed to his most trusted officers. A diesel submarine, S-270, picked up K-19's low-power distress transmissions and rendezvoused with her.

    American warships nearby had also heard the transmission and offered to help, a rare event during the Cold War, but Zateyev, afraid of giving away Soviet military secrets to the West, refused and sailed to meet the S-270. Her crew was evacuated, and the boat was towed to the home base; after landing, the vessel contaminated a zone within 700 metres. The damaged reactors were removed and replaced, a process which took two years. During this time there was further radiation poisoning of the environment and the workers involved.

    During the repair process, it was discovered that the catastrophe had been caused by a drop from a welding electrode that had fallen into the first cooling circuit of the aft reactor during her initial construction. K-19 returned to the fleet, now having acquired the additional nickname "Hiroshima".

    On 1 February 2006, former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev proposed in a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee that the crew of K-19 should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their actions on 4 July 1961. In late March 2006, Nikolai Zateyev was formally nominated for the award.
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