K-19 Submarine Disaster

Daniel Roy
March 10, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2019

K-19 Design and Construction

Fig. 1: Hotel I class SSBN (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

K-19 was the first of the two Project 658 class submarines built by the Soviet Union in 1959. [1] Classified by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) as the Hotel-class submarine, the Hotel-class (ss seen in Fig. 1) was built in response to the United States Skate- class nuclear submarine as a part of the Cold War arms race between the two countries. [2] The Hotel-class was designed off of the previous November-class soviet submarine, the Soviet Union's first nuclear submarine. It was more maneuverable than it's predecessor, and was the first generation of soviet nuclear submarines equipped with R-13 SBLM nuclear ballistic missiles. [2]

The K-19 was laid down on 17 October 1958, and would be captained by Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev. [1] Before it was launched 10 civilians workers and a sailor were killed in accidents while constructing and testing the submarine. After it launched it had multiple problems threatening to sink the submarine. [1]

Nuclear Accident

Fig. 2: K-19 disabled in the North Atlantic on 29 February 1972. [4] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On the 4th of July in 1961, K-19 was conducting exercises in the North Atlantic. At 0415 local time the starboard nuclear reactor had no pressure in the cooling system. [3] The crew found a large leak in the system, causing the pumps to fail. Due to a separate accident damaging the communication array, the submarine couldn't contact Moscow and request assistance. Decay heat from fission product eventually heated the reactor to 800°C (1,470°F). [3]

Captain Zateyev ordered his engineers to fabricate new coolant lines out of the air vents and water piping. [3] This meant that the engineers were exposed to a high amount of radiation. Radiation particles also got into the air vents, contaminating the entire submarine. The crew managed to fix the piping and successfully reduced the temperature in the reactor. [1]

Captain Zeteyev decided to head south and meet with submarines patrolling the area. K-19 sent out a low-powered distress signal, and the soviet submarine S-270 responded to it and joined the the submarine. [3] American warships patrolling the area also responded to the distress call, but Captain Zeteyev didn't want soviet military secrets falling into the hands of the enemy, so the sub kept heading south. [1] When the two subs met K-19 was evacuated and was towed back to port by S-270 (ss seen in Fig. 2). [2]


After it returned to port, the sub contaminated an area of 700 meters. [1] The Soviet Military repaired the submarine and recommissioned K-19. The radiated parts of the ship were dumped into the Kara sea. [2] K-19 was later given the nickname "Hiroshima" by the Soviet navy. [1] The entire crew was irradiated, and all seven of the engineering crew were dead within a month of the incident. Within two year 15 more crew members died from radiation poisoning. [3]

© Daniel Roy. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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. Huchthausen, K-19 The Widowmaker (National Geographic, 2002).

[2] J. R. Hanyok, The Widowmaker: SIGINT and Submarine K-19," U.S. National Security Agency, February 1998

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

[4] N. Polmar and K. J. Moore, Cold War Submarines (Potomac Books, 2003).