Kursk Submarine Disaster: Katastrofa Analysis
Even in the late summer the Bering Sea is still quite a harsh environment with temperatures near freezing that will kill a swimmer with hypothermia in a matter of minutes.
On August 11, 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine, Kursk, was playing war games inside the Arctic Circle in the northern region of the Bering Sea with the Russian battlecruiser Peter the Great. That fateful day, sonar (a system for the detection of objects under water and for measuring the water's depth by emitting sound pulses and measuring their return) from “Peter the Great” detected two large explosions, and communication with Kursk was lost.
Russian ship Peter the Great
The Kursk was among a new class of Russian nuclear submarines. With a length of 500 feet, she was one of the largest of its kind,and possessed amenities for the crew that included a swimming pool and sauna among its 5 decks, all powered by two nuclear reactors in the rear end of the ship.
Despite the grandiose size and nature of the Kursk she was not maintained correctly, and here lies the issue that sunk her.
The Russians were using an outdated form of technology to propel their torpedoes.To power their torpedos the Russians were still relying on hydrogen peroxide, which was first introduced in World War II, but by the early 1960s, both Great Britain and the United States had eliminated the use of these torpedoes.
The government report confirmed that Kursk had been sunk by a torpedo explosion caused when high-test peroxide (HTP), a form of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide, leaked from cracks in the torpedo's casing. HTP is normally stable until it comes in contact with a catalyst.
The problem with hydrogen peroxide-powered torpedoes is that they must be maintained to a very certain standard. One cannot simply place these torpedoes on the shelf for a long period of time and expect proper functioning to occur.
However, this is what the Russian Submarine core was doing in 2000 under the new president Vladimir Putin with a budget that was a small fraction of the previous decade. To save money, the submarine fleet had been decreased from 180 ships down to 40, and these 40 were not well maintained.
On August 11, what most likely happened is that peroxide had been slowly escaping from where it was stored in the torpedo bay and it slowly reacted with brass or copper, eventually causing an explosion that killed everyone in the forward part of the Kursk, including the captain.
The first explosion then triggered warheads to detonate, with the equivalent of 4 tons of TNT exploding causing a blast with temperatures exceeding 500 degrees.
This blast instantly killed almost everyone aboard the Kursk. However, the nuclear reactor in the belly of the ship was strong enough to withstand the explosion, and the four compartments aft of the nuclear reactor were protected from the explosion.
According to letters left by the survivors of the explosion, there were 23 crewmembers in the leaky aft compartments with sour air that quickly became toxic, killing them, too.
These crew members were faced with a choice: they could deploy the remaining emergency hatch and flow to the surface with breathers or wait to be reduced. However, the risk of getting the bends also called decompression sickness was high, the bends results when bubbles from dissolved gases form in the blood or in tissues because of rapidly decreasing pressure.
The bends would most likely have occurred to the crew had they chosen to ascend up through the escape valve, as they were at depths of 300 meters. So the crew decided to wait for a rescue from the Russian submarine rescue vessel that was in fact deployed but could never latch on to the Kursk.
The Russian rescue vessel had outdated technology and the battery life was very limited which forced rescue sessions to be curtailed before they could make a successful contact. Further exacerbating the problems was that the rescue vessel had very poor maneuverability and could only approach from a certain angle and due to the severe depth. And the fact that this is a very open part of the Bering Sea and furthermore that there was in fact a storm on the surface that caused great currents which disrupted the rescue submarine, and the rescue sub kept missing the escape chamber and was unsuccessful In saving the crew’s lives.
The most tragic part of the Kursk’s demise is that she would have easily been saved by the US or British rescue submarines that were available and just a few hours away. Why did the commander that day Admiral Popov wait 12 hours to report the disaster to command in Moscow? Another sorrowful example of the Russian military’s failure to report bad news up the chain of command.
In the end Kursk suffered a slightly similar fate to the Boeing 737 Max tragedies in that faulty maintenance led to a catastrophic technical failure. However unlike the 737 max pilots the Russian sailors were well trained and experienced in sailing the Kursk. Many of the sailors had been with the boat for years and were proud of their vessel and what she meant for mother Russia.
Written by Alexander Fleiss
Edited by Ramsay Bader, Christine Lee, Jeremy Knopp & Jack Argiro