Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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K-19 (4 July 1961)

Soviet nuclear-powered submarine that underwent a critical failure in the reactor's cooling system while at sea. The K-19 was the Soviet Union's first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine of the Hotel class. Commissioned on 30 April 1961, the K-19 displaced 4,030 metric tons on the surface and 5,000 submerged. It had a maximum safe diving depth of 300 meters. Its two nuclear reactors produced a speed of up to 26 knots. The K-19 also had two diesel generators that could produce a speed of 26 knots, but it only had sufficient fuel for fifty days of operation. The K-19 carried three D-2 (NATO designation SS-N-4 Sark) strategic ballistic missiles with a range of 650 kilometers. It also had four forward and two stern torpedo tubes and carried a total of twelve torpedoes.

The K-19 embarked on its first cruise on 18 June 1961. Two weeks later, on 4 July, while cruising submerged off the coast of Greenland, the pump on the starboard nuclear reactor ceased functioning. The sub's captain attempted to radio for help, but the long-range radio failed. In order to prevent a catastrophic nuclear accident, the crew had to open the shielding on the reactor, exposing themselves to lethal radiation levels. The crewmen were able to jury-rig a replacement cooling system for the reactor, but unfortunately for the crew, radioactive steam was released into other parts of the submarine.

The choice for the captain was either to sail home, which would take six or seven days, or to sail in the opposite direction and try to contact three Soviet diesel submarines operating about ten hours south. The captain ordered the K-19 south and was able to make contact with the three Soviet diesel submarines. The first of the latter to make contact was the S-270. It took on the most serious radiation cases from the crippled sub's crew and in turn became contaminated by these crew members. Eventually, the entire crew of the K-19 was transferred to the S-270 and the S-159 to begin the voyage home. The crew was then transferred to the destroyer Byvaly off the North Cape for the final leg of the journey home.

Meanwhile, the K-19 was towed to Polyarnyy, and the crew returned to port for treatment. Eight of its crewmen died within days of the accident. Another 14 died within two years. The remaining 117 crew members all suffered from long-term radiation-related illnesses.

Dallace W. Unger Jr.


Further Reading
Pavlov, A. S. Warships of the USSR and Russia, 1945–1995. Translated from the Russian by Gregory Tokar. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997.; Polmar, Norman, and Kenneth J. Moore. Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 2004.
 

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