Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Fail : Project 685 "Mike" submarine

The Soviet Project 685, known as "Mike" to NATO, was a singleton class of submarine which sank 5 years after commissioning and is now a radioactive time bomb under one of the richest fishing areas in the world off the coast of Norway.

The order to design the 685 was made in 1966 but it took nearly 20 years before K-278 (as the boat was numbered) entered service in 1984. The 685 was an experimental submarine designed to test a number of new technologies and design features including a double hull and stronger internal bulkheads. The inner hull being titanium. The 685 could dive notably deeper than any NATO submarine, down to 1250m. The 685 included a personal escape sphere built into the sail to allow the crew to escape if anything happened in the deep sea.

The 685 came a cropper in relatively shallow waters though, on the 7th of April 1989 while at a depth of no more than 335m south west of Bear Island a fire broke out on board. Despite the watertight doors being closed the fire was able to spread via cables. The reactor was shut down and the submarine surfaced and most of the crew abandoned ship though many died of expsoure. Several hours later the submarine sunk. In total 42 men died in the accident.

And 685 became a radiological hazard. As well as the reactor the 685 carried 2 torpedos armed with nuclear warheads. If there is a serious radioactive leak then rich fishing grounds off the coast of Norway could be ruined for centuries. Surveys of the wreck have indicated cracks along the hull but as yet no serious radioactive leak. The wreck has a large hole in it's torpedo compartment however. Sea water is said to be corroding the casings of the warheads and the submarine's hull. Some plutonium was detected to have leaked from one of the warheads in 1994.

As raising the wreck would likely be too risky the strategy instead has been to seal cracks in the hull. The hull is now said to be safe for 20 to 30 years. So that is reassuring.

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