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Last Updated: Friday, 8 August, 2003, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Russia scraps 'the Widowmaker'
K-19
K-19 was the first Soviet nuclear submarine

An ill-fated Russian nuclear submarine whose story was made into a Hollywood blockbuster is about to be cut to pieces.

Russian TV has shown the crew of the K-19 submarine bidding an emotional farewell to the ship, more than 42 years after a reactor failure on board killed eight crew members and nearly led to a nuclear meltdown.

The submarine was the focus of last year's film K19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford.

This week the surviving crew went to sea together for the first time since the accident, drawing comfort from the knowledge that their skill and heroism probably saved Russia's entire nuclear submarine programme.

Ill-starred

K-19 was Russia's first nuclear-armed submarine, built in a hurry in 1960 as the Soviet Union strained to equal the nuclear might of the US.

Oleg Adamov, K-19 captain 1997-2001
They used to call it Hiroshima
Oleg Adamov, K-19 captain 1997-2001
Rushed through production and testing, the submarine suffered from shoddy workmanship and was accident-prone from the beginning.

Ten people died during its two-year construction, and 52 lives were lost during the its 20-year service.

Close escape

Disaster struck during the submarine's maiden voyage in the north Atlantic. At 0415 on 4 July 1961, pressure in the starboard nuclear reactor's cooling system dropped to zero.

Its sealing had sprung a leak, sending the core's temperature soaring towards meltdown. The imminent explosion would not only have ripped the ship apart, but also contaminated a vast area of the ocean with radioactive fuel.

Some have even suggested it could have triggered a nuclear war if the US mistook a powerful blast for a Soviet attack.

The crew's only hope was to patch up the cooling system before the reactor temperature reached a critical point.

Viktor Strelets, K-19 electrician
When the lads went out of the reactor compartment, they looked about as bad as they were shown in the movie
Viktor Strelets, K-19 electrician
Eight sailors undertook what everyone knew was a suicide mission, exposing themselves to deadly levels of radiation in the heavily-shielded reactor compartment.

They received a lethal dose of radiation within 10 minutes, in what would later become the most heart-rending scene in the Hollywood film.

"When the lads went out of the reactor compartment, they looked about as bad as they were shown in the movie," said grey-haired Viktor Strelets, who served as the sub's electrician at the time.

But the repair team managed to patch up the cooling system and save the contaminated ship, which was towed back to port a few days later. The men died of radiation sickness within days.

But although some of the crew members were decorated for their heroism, their story was kept secret for decades.

Fateful

It was not before another deadly incident, an uncontrollable fire on board that killed 32 people in 1972, that the sub was finally decommissioned.

K-19
Displacement: 5,000 tonnes
Length: 114 metres
Max Depth: 300 metres
Speed: 48 km/h
Armament: Three ballistic nuclear missiles, 1.4 megaton each
Missile range: 650 km
Engine: Two 70 megawatt nuclear reactors
But even as the K-19 is heading for the scrap yard, the legacy of its heroic crew remains.

They managed to save Russia's first nuclear submarine, and the state commission that investigated the incident found no fault in their actions.

That, the TV said, determined the fate of Russia's entire nuclear fleet.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.




SEE ALSO:
Sub film's tricky Russian outing
13 Oct 02  |  Entertainment
K-19 sailors attack 'inaccurate' film
22 Jul 02  |  Entertainment
Russia remembers Kursk disaster
12 Aug 02  |  Europe
Country profile: Russia
23 Jul 03  |  Country profiles


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