VLADIVOSTOK, November 9 – At least 20 people were killed and 21 hurt in an accident on a Russian nuclear submarine in the Sea of Japan, the navy said Sunday, the worst such incident since the Kursk disaster.
The nuclear reactor that powers the submarine was undamaged in the accident and background radiation levels in the vicinity of the accident in a Russian naval testing zone were "normal," a naval spokesman said.
"During sea trials of a nuclear-powered submarine of the Pacific Fleet the firefighting system went off unsanctioned, killing over 20 people, including servicemen and workers," said Captain Igor Dygalo, the navy’s spokesman.
The RIA Novosti news agency said the submarine was undergoing sea trials in preparation for delivery to India’s navy but this was not confirmed by officials.
The victims included both servicemen and shipyard workers aboard the submarine for sea trials, Dygalo said. ITAR-TASS news agency said the dead included six sailors and 14 civilians.
The injured were evacuated from the stricken submarine aboard an accompanying ship and were taken to a hospital on shore where they were being treated, ITAR-TASS and RIA Novosti quoted officials as saying.
A source with the Pacific Fleet’s hospital in Vladivostok told AFP that the 21 injured people evacuated from the submarine aboard a destroyer were suffering various degrees of poisoning.
Other sources, who requested anonymity, said an additional 20 people with less serious poisoning were being treated aboard another ship, the Sayany, which was escorting the submarine.
The accident occurred Saturday and Dygalo said President Dmitry Medvedev had been briefed on the situation by Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and had ordered a "full and meticulous" investigation.
Dygalo did not identify the submarine involved and did not explain how the accidental activation of the ship’s fire extinguishing system resulted in the casualties.
However, a source in the Amur shipyard administration named the submarine as the K-152 Nerpa, a nuclear-powered submarine of the Project 971 Shchuka-B type, or Akula-class by NATO classification, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
In October officials from the Amur shipyard reported the launch of sea trials for the 8,140-tonne Nerpa, which was put into production in 1991.
According to the source quoted by RIA Novosti, the Nerpa was undergoing sea trials in the Russian part of the Japanese Sea, with senior engineers and the shipyard’s technicians on board as well as the military.
The Nerpa was due to be leased to the Indian navy, with New Delhi reportedly paying two billion dollars for the lease of two Akula-class submarines, with an option of buying them when the lease run out.
Federal investigators on Sunday opened a criminal probe into the accident, Interfax news agency reported.
Dygalo told AFP that the submarine itself was not damaged and there was no radiation leakage from the vessel’s reactor.
"I announce with full authority that the submarine’s reactor compartment is functioning normally and that background radiation aboard the submarine is normal," Dygalo said.
The injured were suffering from various degrees of poisoning, officials said.
A total of 208 people were aboard the submarine, but of those only 81 were servicemen while the others were naval technicians and specialists.
The toll of dead and injured made the weekend accident the worst involving a Russian submarine since the 2000 Kursk disaster, when 118 crewmen died when their nuclear submarine sank after an onboard explosion in the Barents Sea.
The Kremlin was harshly criticised at home and abroad for its sluggish and secretive response to the Kursk disaster, but seemed to be moving quickly to avoid a repetition this time.
Dygalo said Medvedev had ordered the defence ministry to provide "all possible aid and support to the victims’ families."
The spokesman did not say exactly where the incident occurred or specify to which port the submarine would return.
"The sub is due to arrive at its destination Sunday at midday Moscow time (0900 GMT), but much will depend on weather conditions," a high-ranking Pacific Fleet source was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.
Fire suppression systems on submarines may rely on chemical liquids. It was unclear however how the accidental activation of the system on the Russian sub resulted in the deaths and injuries.
According to a military expert quoted by Russian agencies, the malfunction could be due to errors by the crew.
In addition to the Kursk disaster in August 2000, Russia has seen a string of accidents and mishaps with its naval submarines.
Nine sailors died aboard a K-159 submarine when it sank in the Barents Sea in August 2003 while being towed to port for decommissioning. Only one seaman survived that incident.
In 2005, a mini-submarine of the Pacific Fleet got snared underwater in a fishing net, requiring the help of a British rescue team that arrived many hours later with oxygen supplies dwindling.