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Accident of the Russian Nuclear Submarine Kursk

The Unfortunate Accident of the Russian Nuclear Submarine Kursk

Kursk was a Russian nuclear cruise missile submarine that sank in Barents Sea, in one of the worst submarine accidents of the world. It is said that one of the faulty torpedoes caused an explosion that sank the submarine. Read on to know more about this tragedy...
Sourabh Gupta
Last Updated: Apr 23, 2018
K-141 Kursk, an Oscar II class nuclear cruise submarine of the Russian Navy, sank in Barents Sea on August 12, 2000. The submarine was one of the first vessels to be built after the fall of the Soviet Union, and was named after the Russian city of Kursk, where the massive WWII battle, the Battle of Kursk, took place in 1943. Many theories have been proposed for the cause of the mishap, however, the generally accepted one is that two explosions in the torpedo room sank the submarine. It is said that the explosions were equivalent to 3-7 tons of TNT.
A Brief Factfile
Name K-141 Kursk
Commissioned 1994
Class Oscar II
Homeport Vidyaevo, Russia
Displacement 16,400 tons (full load)
  • 2 nuclear reactors OK-650b
  • 2 steam turbines
  • 2/7-bladed props
  • 32 knots (59 km/h) submerged
  • 16 knots (30 km/h) surfaced
Test Depths 300 to 1000 meters
Complement 44 officers, 68 enlisted
  • 24 x SS-N-19/P-700 Granit
  • 4 x 533 mm bow torpedo tubes
  • 2 x 650 mm torpedo tubes
On August 12, 2000, Kursk was participating in a naval exercise, where it was to fire two dummy torpedoes at a Kirov-class battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy, but during the exercise high test peroxide (HTP), a highly concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide that is used as a propellant in torpedoes, oozed through rusted torpedo casing, and reacted with the copper and brass in the tube from which the torpedo was to be fired. This resulted in a chain reaction that led to the explosion. It was a normal practice to leave the watertight door open, that separated the torpedo room from the rest of the submarine, because when a torpedo was launched, it released compressed air. Since the watertight door was open, the blast ripped through the first two of the nine compartments in the submarine, killing seven men. It is believed that Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov tried to order an 'emergency blow', which causes a submarine to rise rapidly to the surface, but, he was overcome with smoke.
A few seconds after the first explosion, another explosion, much larger than the first, ripped through the submarine. This was due to the increasing temperature inside the submarine that led to the explosion of about 6 torpedo warheads. The explosion was equivalent to about 5 tons of TNT. The nuclear reactors were shut down after the second explosion. The explosion had created a large hole in the hull of the submarine, from which the water poured inside at the speed of 90,000 liters per second, killing all who were inside the compartment.
23 men working in the sixth compartment had survived the blast. They gathered in the ninth compartment, which contained the escape tunnel. The power soon ran out, because the reactors had been shut down. It isn't clear how many days these people survived, but Russians say they died quickly. Contrary to this official view, superoxide chemical cartridges, used to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen for survival, were found empty, which suggests that people survived for a few days.
The Navy ships in the exercise detected an explosion, but did not report, thinking it was part of the exercise. It was only in the evening, when there was no word from the Kursk, that search operations were launched. It was traced the following morning. Due to bad weather, the Russians weren't able to rescue people for the next two days. The US and the British offered to help, but Russians accepted the help too late, on 16th August, 4 days after the accident. The help reached the accident site on August 20, when they declared that the ninth compartment was flooded, and there was no chance of survival for anyone.
The hull, except the bow, was raised from the floor by Dutch salvage companies in late 2001, and the bodies of the dead were recovered. Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded the Order of Courage to the crew, whereas the submarine's captain Gennady Lyachin was given the title of Hero of the Russian Federation.