More details on the Ekaterinburg fire

In the last week, there have been two very interesting reports with additional information on the fire that seriously damaged the Ekaterinburg strategic nuclear submarine back in December. All the reports seem to agree that the submarine’s nuclear missiles and torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the start of the repair, which meant that there had been a serious risk of a torpedo explosion while the fire burned.

But let’s start at the beginning. The reports indicate that the submarine came to Rosliakovo for a routine inspection, during which it was decided that damage to a cowling that covers the submarine’s sonar. This covering had been damaged either when the submarine was docking, or earlier in the summer or fall, depending on the report. In order to fix the cowling, an opening was made in the outer hull. The fire began during the repair (at 3:45pm Moscow time on December 29) as the result of sparks igniting wooden scaffolding. From the scaffolding, the fire spread to the rubber soundproofing covering that is located between the outer and inner hull. This covering supposedly becomes flammable only at very high temperatures, but once on fire it is very difficult to extinguish. The fire spread in the space between the two hulls, a location that is narrow and filled with various equipment, factors that increased the difficulty of fighting the fire. Three hours after the fire began, flames continued to shoot up to a height of 15-20 meters.

Those in charge at the site early on had the idea to submerge the floating dock in which the submarine was located, but the process was complicated by the presence of the Admiral Kulakov destroyer in the same dock. If the dock was submerged too far, the interior of the ship would be flooded. The Kommersant article that discusses this issue does not really address the question of how this was resolved, though it implies that the dock was partially submerged so that seawater could reach the submarine and extinguish the fire without rising so high as to flood the Kulakov. Afterwards, the fire was mostly brought under control, though it was not fully extinguished until 6:20pm on December 30, almost 27 hours after it began.

Numerous sources agree that both the submarine’s nuclear missiles and its torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the inspection. The reports indicate that regulations do not require that the missiles be offloaded in this circumstance, but that the torpedoes should be. According to Novaia Gazeta, the base commander allowed the Ekaterinburg to enter the dock without offloading the torpedoes. Kommersant notes that this happens fairly frequently in order to avoid delays.

The torpedoes were located in the first compartment, only 40 meters from the fire. Here’s a picture of the front of the submarine:

The crew quickly realized the danger that extreme heat just on the other side of the inner hull might cause the torpedoes to explode. Since the hydraulic systems for torpedo removal were not functioning, they risked their lives to manually remove the torpedoes from the first compartment. According to Novaia Gazeta, three torpedoes were removed in this way. Had the torpedoes exploded, dozens of crew and firefighters would have been killed. Depending on the number of torpedoes affected, the authors of the Kommersant article raise the possibility that the explosion could have destroyed the floating dock and the Admiral Kulakov and might have led to radioactive contamination from the nuclear missiles or the two nuclear reactors onboard. I have no way of judging how serious that threat was, but whether or not it was real, a torpedo explosion would have certainly led to panic not just in Roslyakovo but also in the nearby cities of Severomorsk and Murmansk, which have a total population of almost 400,000 people. You can see the locations on the map below, from the Kommersant article.

Finally, let me turn to the consequences for the future of the submarine. This topic is addressed extensively in the Novaia Gazeta article. The good news is that according to Dmitry Rogozin the repairs will cost only 500 million rubles — half of the initially announced estimate. The article goes on to argue, however, that it is unlikely that the submarine will be able to submerge to significant depths in the future because the high temperatures sustained by the inner hull in the front section of the submarine may have compromised its strength. The author says that unless the entire front compartment is replaced, the submarine will only be able to submerge to limited depths without risking the lives of its crew.

I am sure that the Ekaterinburg’s first cruise after the repairs are completed will receive a great deal of attention. Given the potential consequences of a problem, hopefully no one will be cutting any corners.

Repairing the Ekaterinburg

There have been some announcements on the repair schedule for the Ekaterinburg Delta IV submarine, which was seriously damaged by fire a couple of weeks ago. These reports confirm expectations that because of the fire, the submarine will be sent for its second major overhaul now, rather than in 2013 as scheduled. In addition to the regular overhaul, the outer hull will have to be repaired and the sonar apparatus replaced. The main disagreement is whether the repair will be completed in 3-4 years (i.e. by 2015 or 2016) or (if we follow Dmitry Rogozin’s tweets) by the summer of 2014. Winter ice means that the submarine will be sent to Severdvinsk in the spring and repairs will actually begin in May or June.

Two years to both repair the fire damage and complete the regular overhaul seems excessively ambitious. The Verkhoturie, the first Delta IV submarine to go for its second overhaul, is scheduled to be returned to the fleet in December 2012, 2.5 years after the overhaul began. Fixing the fire damage will take extra time, so I would imagine the 3-4 year time estimate is more likely than Rogozin’s 2 year claim.

In the meantime, the accident will likely delay the decommissioning of one or more of the three remaining Delta III submarines that are to be replaced by the soon to be commissioned Borei submarines.

The Ekaterinburg fire: the plot thickens?

I just came across an interesting post at the Barents Observer, which makes the argument that the Ekaterinburg fire started in the torpedo compartment, rather than on the submarine’s exterior. This is based on visual analysis of photos posted by a local blogger in the Murmansk area. I don’t have permission to cross-post the photos, so I urge those who might have expertise in this area to go look at the photos and accompanying discussion.

The argument, in brief, is that the rubber outer covering of the submarine, which is what supposedly burned, does not appear in post-fire photos to have sustained much damage. Instead, the fire may have started near the hydro-acoustic apparatus that is located inside the outer hull. Again, I have no idea whether this argument makes any sense or not, as I’m neither an expert on firefighting nor on submarine construction. But it’s worth at least noting the rumors circulating in the Russian internet, which also include the possibility that torpedoes had not been offloaded. Here’s a good summary of the alternative version of what happened during the fire.

Finally, one other question: If there was a 4×4 meter hole in the submarine, as seems fairly clear from the first of the Barents Observer photos, then what happened to the submarine’s interior when the sub was submerged in order to put out the fire? At the very least, it would seem to me that the torpedo compartment must have sustained extensive salt water damage, no?

Anyway, I’m not one to hold to conspiracy theories, so I will assume that the official version of events is the one most likely to be true, unless there’s good evidence to the contrary. But it’s worth knowing that other explanations are floating around.


A bad day for the Russian military

The Russian military suffered two major accidents today — a fire on the Ekaterinburg SSBN and the crash of a Su-24 on landing in Volgograd.

The submarine fire was quite serious and burned for seven hours.  The Ekaterinburg was in dry dock at the time undergoing scheduled repairs. Its nuclear reactor had been shut down and its weapons offloaded for the repair. The sub eventually had to be submerged in order to completely put out the fire, though it appears from initial news reports that the damage was limited to the outer hull as the fire didn’t penetrate to the interior.

There’s conflicting information on injuries — most news outlets are reporting that there were no injuries, but one report indicated that nine people had been taken to the hospital with injuries caused by the fire. The fire appears to have been caused by sparks emitted during a welding operation, which spread to nearby construction debris and then to scaffolding being used in the submarine’s repair. From there, the fire spread to the submarine’s outer hull, damaging the special noise-reducing rubber coating located on the submarine’s exterior between the outer and inner hull. While it seems to be too early to know for sure, early reports indicate that repair of the submarine will take at least six months.

Meanwhile, in Volgograd, a landing Su-24 on a routine training flight crashed and exploded. Both members of the crew were able to eject from the plane and survived the incident. This is the second crash of a Su-24 in the last few months. In October, a Su-24 on its way to be repaired crashed on landing in Amur oblast after overshooting the runway. In that case, the crew members were killed. It was later determined that that crash was caused by a broken chassis that caused the plane to flip over and also ruptured the plane’s fuel tank, causing a fire. According to RIA-Novosti, at least fifteen Su-24 aircraft have crashed in Russia since 2000.

These two accidents may serve as an early test for Dmitry Rogozin, the newly appointed Deputy Premier in charge of the defense industry. If he wants to show from the start that he is serious about shaking things up, he may use them as an excuse to push through a major house-cleaning of the industry, parts of which are known to have lax quality control and safety standards. Or he may continue to make strong statements that receive a great deal of media attention with little to no follow through, as he did in his previous position as Russia’s ambassador to NATO.

UPDATE: Ilya Kramnik emailed me with a correction — the rubber covering on the Ekaterinburg is not between the outer and inner hulls, but on the outside of the outer hull. There is some minor damage to communications between the two hulls.

Also, there’s been official confirmation that seven crew members and two emergency ministry personnel (i.e. firefighters, most likely) had suffered from smoke inhalation.