Soviet submarine K-278 Komsomolets

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Mike class SSN.svg
K-278 Komsomolets profile
K-278 underway in 1986
K-278, 1 Jan 1986
Soviet naval pennantSoviet Union
  • K-278 (1983–1989)
  • K-278 Komsomolets (1989–1990)
Builder: Sevmash
Yard number: 510
Laid down: 22 April 1978
Launched: 9 May 1983 (3 June 1983)
Commissioned: 28 December 1983
Decommissioned: 6 June 1990
Homeport: Bolshaya Lopatka at Zapadnaya Litsa
Fate: Sank due to fire on 7 April 1989, killing 42
Status: Located in the Barents Sea in 1,600 m (5,200 ft) of water
General characteristics
Class and type: NATO reporting name "Mike"-class submarine
Displacement: 4,400–5,750 tons surfaced, 6,400–8,000 tons submerged
Length: 117.5 m (385 ft)
Beam: 10.7 m (35 ft)
Draft: 8 to 9 m (26 to 30 ft)
Propulsion: One 190 MW OK-650 b-3 pressurised water reactor, two 45000 shp steam turbines, one shaft
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph) surfaced, 26 to 30 knots (48 to 56 km/h; 30 to 35 mph) submerged
Test depth: 1,000 m safe, 1,250 m design, 1,500 m crush
Complement: 30 officers, 22 warrant officers, 12 petty officers and enlisted

K-278 Komsomolets was the only Project 685 Plavnik (Плавник, meaning "fin", also known by its NATO reporting name of "Mike"-class) nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Soviet Navy. On 4 August 1984 K-278 reached a record depth of 1,020 metres (3,350 feet) in the Norwegian Sea.[1] Although it was developed mostly to test technology for fourth-generation nuclear submarines, it was fully combat capable. It sank on its first operational patrol, in 1989, after a fire broke out in the aft engineering compartment.

The Komsomolets was able to surface after the fire started and remained afloat for approximately 5 hours before sinking.[2] Of the 42 crew members who died, only 4 were killed by the fire and smoke, while 34 died of hypothermia, drowning in the frigid waters while awaiting rescue that did not arrive in time. Because of the loss of life, a public enquiry was conducted and, as a result, many formerly classified details were revealed by the Soviet news media.[not verified in body]

The wrecked submarine is on the floor of the Barents Sea, about 1.6km (1 mile) deep, with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads still on board.


The Project 685 was designed by the Rubin Design Bureau in response to a challenge to develop an advanced submarine that could carry a mix of torpedoes and cruise missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads. The order to design the submarine was issued in 1966 and design was completed in 1974. The first (and only) keel was laid down on 22 April 1978 at Severodvinsk. K-278 was launched on 3 June 1983 and commissioned on 28 December 1983.

K-278 had a double hull, the inner one being composed of titanium, which gave her an operating depth far greater than that of the best American submarines.[citation needed] The pressure hull was composed of seven compartments with the second and third protected by stronger forward and aft bulkheads creating a "safety zone" in case of an emergency. An escape capsule was fitted in the sail above these compartments to enable the crew to abandon ship in the event of an underwater emergency. Initial Western intelligence estimates of K-278’s speed were based on the assumption that it was powered by a pair of liquid-metal lead-bismuth reactors. When the Soviet Union revealed that the submarine used a single OK-650b-3 conventional pressurized-water reactor, these speed estimates were lowered.[Note 1]


According to Norman Polmar and Kenneth J. Moore, two Western experts on Soviet submarine design and operations, the Project 685's advanced design included many automated systems which, in turn, allowed for fewer crew members than would be expected for a submarine of its size. The manning table approved by the Soviet Ministry of Defense in 1982 called for a crew of just 57 men. This was later increased to 64: 30 officers, 22 warrant officers, and 12 petty officers and seamen.[3]

Submarine K-278 gets a name[edit]

In October 1988, K-278 was honored by becoming one of the few Soviet submarines to be given an actual name: Komsomolets (Комсомолец, meaning "a member of the Komsomol"), and her commanding officer, Captain 1st rank Yuriy Zelenskiy was honored for diving to a depth of 1,020 meters (3,350 feet).


On 7 April 1989, while under the command of Captain 1st Rank Evgeny Vanin and running submerged at a depth of 335 metres (1,099 ft) about 180 kilometres (100 nmi) southwest of Bear Island (Norway),[4] fire broke out in the engine room due to a short-circuit,[5] and even though watertight doors were shut, the resulting fire spread through bulkhead cable penetrations. The reactor scrammed and propulsion was lost. Electrical problems spread as cables burned through, and control of the boat was threatened. An emergency ballast tank blow was performed and the submarine surfaced eleven minutes after the fire began. Distress calls were made, and most of the crew abandoned ship.

The fire continued to burn, fed by the compressed air system. At 15:15,[6] several hours after the boat surfaced, it sank in 1,680 metres (5,510 ft) of water, about 250 kilometres (135 nmi) SSW off Bear Island.[6][7] The commanding officer and four others who were still on board entered the escape capsule and ejected it. Only one of the five to reach the surface was able to leave the capsule and survive before it sank again in the rough seas.

Rescue aircraft arrived quickly and dropped small rafts, but most of the men had already died from hypothermia in the 2 °C (36 °F) water of the Barents Sea. The floating fish factory B-64/10 Aleksey Khlobystov (Алексей Хлобыстов) arrived 81 minutes after K-278 sank, and took aboard 25 survivors and 5 fatalities.[citation needed] In total, 42 of the 69 crewmen died in the accident, including the commanding officer.[2][5]


In addition to her eight standard torpedoes K-278 was carrying two torpedoes armed with nuclear warheads. Under pressure from Norway, the Soviet Union used deep sea submersibles operated from the oceanographic research ship Keldysh to search for K-278. In June 1989, two months after the sinking, the wreck was located. Soviet officials stated that any possible leaks were insignificant and pose no threat to the environment.

Examination of the wreck in May 1992 revealed cracks along the entire length of the titanium hull, some of which were of 30–40 centimetres (12–16 inches) wide, as well as possible breaches in the reactor coolant pipes. An oceanographic survey of the area in August 1993 suggested that waters at the site were not mixing vertically, and thus the sea life in the area was not being rapidly contaminated. That survey also found a hole over six metres (20 feet) wide in the forward torpedo compartment.[citation needed]

In 1993, Vice Admiral (ret.) Chernov, commander of the submarine group of which the Komsomolets was part, founded the Komsomolets Nuclear Submarine Memorial Society, a charity to support the widows and orphans of his former command. Since then, the Society's charter has expanded to provide assistance to the families of all Soviet and Russian submariners lost at sea. Also, 7 April has become a day of commemoration for all submariners lost at sea.

An expedition in mid-1994 revealed some plutonium leakage from one of the two nuclear torpedoes. On 24 June 1995, Keldysh set out again from St. Petersburg to the Mike datum to seal the hull fractures in Compartment 1 and cover the nuclear warheads, and declared success at the end of a subsequent expedition in July 1996. The Russian government declared the risk of radioactive contamination of the environment negligible until 2015 or 2025.[citation needed]

Norwegian authorities from the Marine Environmental Agency and Radiation Agency took several samples in August 2008 and no radiation was found. They checked for different radioactive substances including gamma emitters, plutonium, americium and strontium.[8]

In July 2019 a joint Norwegian-Russian expedition carrying out routine monitoring of the wreck site detected elevated levels of radioactive contamination of the water around it, indicating leakage from either the vessel's reactor or torpedoes.[7][9] Despite the leakage, the expedition concluded that there was only an insignificant threat to the environment, due to the depth of the wreck and dilution.[10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The OK-650 reactor was also installed on Project 971 (Akula), Project 945 (Sierra), and in pairs on the Project 941 (Typhoon) submarines.


  1. ^ "Хождение за три глубины". Военно-промышленный курьер. Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  2. ^ a b Pope, Brian (May 1989). "Soviet Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine Sinks Off Norway". Arms Control Today. 19 (4): 24. JSTOR 23624029.
  3. ^ Norman Polmar, and Kenneth J. Moore; Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines; Published 2004 by Brassey's, Inc. (Dulles, Virginia); pp. 286–287; ISBN 1-57488-594-4; Google books, accessed 28 March 2011.
  4. ^ Gary Weir and Walter Boyne, "Rising Tide", New York, NY: Basic Books,(2003)
  5. ^ a b "A lot lost at sea". The Economist. 15 April 1989. Archived from the original on 9 April 2016. Retrieved 3 May 2015 – via HighBeam.
  6. ^ a b Barnaby, Frank (1989). "The Release of Radioactivity into the Sea from the Sunken Soviet "MIKE" Submarine". AMBIO. 18 (5): 296–297. JSTOR 4313590.
  7. ^ a b Brennan, David. "Radiation Levels of Sunken Russian Nuclear Submarine 100,000 Times Higher Than Normal". Newsweek. Retrieved 10 July 2019.
  8. ^ "Havforskningsinstituttet - Sjekker atomubåten "Komsomolets" for radioaktiv lekkasje". 22 August 2008. Retrieved 16 January 2019.
  9. ^ 'Video from lost submarine 'Komsomolets' released amid radiation leak reports', Russia Today, published on Youtube 9 July 2019.[citation needed]
  10. ^ Prior, Ryan (11 July 2019). "A sunken Soviet nuclear submarine is leaking unusually high levels of radiation". CNN. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
  11. ^

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 73°43′26″N 13°15′58″E / 73.7238°N 13.2662°E / 73.7238; 13.2662