K-19 Nuclear Submarine 1961 Incident

Daniel Lowet
March 18, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The Russian submarine K-19, as taken from a US Navy Plane. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Soviet Union began building their first ballistic-missile-equipped nuclear submarine in 1958, and named it the K-19. [1] The submarine, pictured in Fig. 1, was completed on November 12, 1960, and could operate at a max depth of 150m. [1] There were three ballistic nuclear missiles on the submarine, each with ranges of 650 km. [1] The building of the K-19 was rushed, as the Soviet leaders were determined to build a nuclear sub fleet that would rival the United States. [1] Production and testing was so rushed, however, that the Captain of the K-19, Nikolai Zateyev, thought that the submarine fleet was not fit for combat. [1] From July-November of 1960, the K-19's sea trials were plagued by breakdowns and malfunctions. [1] However, on June 18, 1961, the K-19 departed on its first mission, as a U.S. attacker in the Atlantic Ocean. [1]


On July 4, 1961, the K-19 developed a radioactive leak while in the North Atlantic Ocean. [2] It is believed that the probable reason for the leak was an incident during the start-up tests of one of the reactors, where the first pressure test went all the way to 400 atm because of a pressure gauge malfunction. [2] The designed pressure was only 200 atm, so this resulted in damage to the piping of the primary system. [2] The person in charge of the test, however, did not report the incident to his superiors, so the repair work was not performed. [2] The leak was located in a pipe regulating the pressure within the primary cooling circuit, causing a sudden drop in pressure, which set off the reactor emergency systems. [3] This drop in pressure led to the reactor water boiling, and the temperature of the reactor room reached at least 140°C, before a fire was ignited in the room. [2] The fire was extinguished, but the major issue was the cooling of the reactor core. [2] The Captain, however, did not react immediately, although it should have been clear that a leak had developed in the primary system in one of the two submarine reactors. [2] There was no coolant system in place to stop the reactor from overheating, so the crew, protected only by raincoats and gasmasks, had to enter the reactor compartment and fix the leak, in an effort to save the submarine from exploding. [4] They developed a cooling system with the drinking water supply on board, which proved to be effective. [2] Although the crew avoided the melting of the fuel and a possible steam explosion, they exposed themselves to doses of radiation of 50 to 60 Sv in the form of noxious gas and steam. [2,3] The crew was evacuated to a diesel submarine based nearby the incident, and the K-19 was towed home to base on the Kola Peninsula. [3]


Within a matter of days, eight crew members who had fixed the leak died of radiation poisoning. [4] Several of the other compartments on the submarine itself, and the rest of the crew also became contaminated. [2] The submarine was later repaired and brought back into service, by replacing the reactor compartment of the submarine with a new nuclear power unit. [2] The two damaged reactors and their fuel were dumped in the Abrosimova Bay in the Kara Sea in 1965. [2] There was then another reactor incident on the K-19 in 1972, leading it to receive the nickname of Hiroshima because of the numerous incidents. [3] In total, twenty-two of the 139 men in the submarine's original crew in 1961 died of radiation sickness over the few years following the incident. [4] The fate of the K-19 was a closely guarded secret, and was not publicized to Western sources until 1991 when the newspaper Pravda confirmed the radiation had killed many members of the crew. [4] The crew members had been sworn to secrecy, and had to lie to doctors in routine checkups even decades after the incident. [4]

© Daniel Lowet. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] P. C. R. Huchthausen, K-19 The Widowmaker: The Secret of The Soviet Nuclear Submarine (National Geographic, 2002).

[2] P. L. Ølgaard, "Accidents in Nuclear Ships," Risø National Laboratory, NKS-RAK-2(96)TR-C3, December 1996.

[3] T. Nilson, I. Kudrik, and A. Nikitin, "The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radiation Contamination," Bellona Foundation, February 1996.

[4] M. Bivens, "Horror of Soviet Nuclear Sub's '61 Tragedy Told," Los Angeles Times, 3 Jan 94.