"The devices attaching the pontoons to the sub were welded to the rust-eaten hull which in some places was as weak as foil." Captain Second Class Sergei Zhemchuzhnov
K-159 Court Session Behind Closed Doors
Moscow December 25, 2003 (Interfax) - A January 12 court session to look into the sinking of the K-159 nuclear submarine (NATO November Class) will take place behind closed doors, a spokesman for the Northern Fleet military court told Interfax in a telephone interview on Thursday.
The spokesman said that the defendant, Admiral Gennady Suchkov, was relieved of duties as Northern Fleet commander following the incident in the Barents Sea in August.
"As the case materials contain information constituting a state secret, the case has been classified and the trial will take place behind closed doors," he said.
The K-159 submarine separated from a towboat while being transported to the town of Polyarny for disposal and sank, killing nine crewmembers. One sailor survived.
Background info on K-159 sinking
K-159 doomed by expectations of Western funding
The K-159, a Russian first generation November class submarine, was doomed when it set sail, towed by a tugboat from the Northern Fleet's semi-abandoned Gremikha Base, on August 29th, according to the officer responsible for the failed operation.
The K-159, a Russian first generation November class submarine, was doomed when it set sail, towed by a tugboat from the Northern Fleet's semi-abandoned Gremikha Base, on August 29th.
Kudrik, 2003-10-18 01:55
Photos provided to Bellona by Russian website KSF.RU—which is run by journalists from closed naval cities on the Kola Peninsula—capture the K-159 and its crew the day before it sank. The condition of the submarine and the floatation pontoons attached to it seem to be far short of seaworthy, to say the least.
The K-159 was on its way to the Polyarny shipyard near the Arctic city of Murmansk for dismantlement when it sank during the early morning hours of August 30th, two days out to sea. The bulk of funding for dismantling the K-159—and 15 other non-strategic submarines, which were to be towed from Gremikha—was to come from Western donor countries.
An ongoing investigation of the tragedy, which claimed the lives of nine of the K-159's 10 crew members, was launched by the Military Prosecutor General's office, which has so far only brought charges against , who was overseeing the towing operation.
Admiral Gennady Suchkov, the commander of the Northern Fleet, was suspended in September after the Russian Navy's Chief of Staff Vladimir Kuroyedov called the K-159 accident "a series of preventable mistakes."
The 'Preventable Mistakes' This week Zhemchuzhnov launched a blunt and vociferous attack on the ways the Northern Fleet conducts the towing operations, listing the "preventable" mistakes that facilitated the K-159 accident. The whole operation, he told the Russian Kommersant daily, was blighted by antiquated equipment.
The pontoons used to keep the mothballed K-159 submarine afloat, made in the 1940s, were not airtight, and were not designed for towing operations, Zhemchuzhnov told the newspaper.
"As an officer, I didn't have an opportunity to express my personal opinion and had to fulfil the order," Zhemchuzhnov said. "The devices attaching the pontoons to the sub were welded to the rust-eaten hull, which in some places was as weak as foil."
The four pontoons themselves had to be repeatedly topped up with air, he told the paper, and one of them was "absolutely wrecked" and needed constant re-inflating.
The pontoons "consistently bled air pressure, and the K-159 crew was assigned to pressurise them every five hours to keep the sub afloat," Zhemchuzhnov said.
The submarine was ripped away from some of the pontoons in the middle of a reportedly violent storm and then tilted to its stern before sinking to the seabed.
Western Submarine Decommissioning Funds Prompts Subs' Quick Removal
In the summer of 2003, Russia became the beneficiary of an apparent outbreak of international non-proliferation and environmental philanthropy. Five countries made a combined donation of more than $200m toward Russia's efforts to decommission its retired non-strategic submarines and to clean up some of Northwest Russia's most radioactively contaminated areas. Much of the funding releases were facilitated by the signing in May of the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation, or MNEPR, in Stockholm.
The Northern Fleet, anticipating the upcoming funding, decided to remove all the 16 rusty submarines from the semi-functional Gremikha Base—located on the eastern coast of the Kola Peninsula—and tow them to shipyards where they would be dismantled, Zhemchuzhnov said.
"The plan for towing the laid-up submarines from the Iokanga [another name for Gremikha] Base area to dismantlement sites was approved by the commander of the Northern Fleet in the spring of 2003," Zhemchuzhnov said. "In accordance with the plan, we were given the task of transferring 16 retired nuclear submarines during the summer navigation [period] from April to October. The K-159 was the 13th submarine we were transferring from Ostrovnoi [a town in the Gremikha Base area] to a dismantlement site."
In his interview, Zhemchuzhnov explained the high tempo of the towing operation by the fact that "there was big money involved [and] earmarked for dismantlement."
"I think this money was to be swallowed as quickly as possible, and reports about the cleanup of 'nuclear garbage' from the bases of the Northern Fleet were to be sent to Moscow," Zhemchuzhnov said.
The mass-scale operation did not go as expected. All 16 of the non-strategic submarines moored in Gremikha had already been rusting there for the past 10 to 15 years. Many of them had leaky ballast tanks—mechanisms that control the depth of a submarine's submersion.
Zhemchuzhnov said that in September 2002, when the first submarine was being transferred from Gremikha to a shipyard on the Kola Peninsula, two pontoons located on its stern broke loose, even though the sea was calm. The submarine eventually arrived safely at its destination. The incident, however, failed to send any wake-up calls to Northern Fleet commanders.
Donor countries must insist on evaluating the projects they are funding from the point of view of the hazards the implementation of these projects could cause.
Western Donors Must Ensure Safe Spending of Their Money Retired rusting hulks of submarines like the K-159 are indeed an extremely urgent issue. But it is equally important to ensure that donor nations exercise greater control over the dismantling and nuclear and radiation safety projects that their funding grants facilitate.
"Western donors cannot simply give financial support without reviewing each stage of the process they are funding—for example the process of dismantling a nuclear submarine," Alexander Nikitin, former submarine captain first class and currently chairman of Bellona's St. Petersburg branch, said shortly after the K-159's accident.
Donor countries must insist on evaluating the projects they are funding from the point of view of the hazards the implementation of these projects could cause. Whether the observed lack of project oversight comes from the donors' naivete or their unwillingness to delve into Russia's infamous bureaucracy, such neglect can have dramatic effects. According to Nikitin, "if international donors pay for operations that lead to such incidents like the K-159 sinking, then it would be better if these international donors don't give any money at all."
Norway pioneered the efforts of the international community to fund the dismantlement of non-strategic submarines and this summer signed a contract with Russian shipyards to dismantle two Victor II class submarines. Both submarines had been located at Gremikha and towed to a dismantlement site for destruction.
Norway was, in effect, trapped when it paid for the dismantlement—and specifically the dangerous towing—of the vessels for the simple reason that it had not properly investigated the contract from the point of view of safe submarine destruction procedures. The money was simply transferred to the concerned shipyards that hire contractors of their choosing to carry out various aspects of the work. When asked to comment on this apparent oversight, officials from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said somewhat evasively that it was "a Russian matter."
You're welcome Steve. Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in awhile.
It's interesting that they blame the West for not giving them the money to dispose of their crappy non-maintained nuke sub mothball fleet. Did you notice what looks like a rusty frigate in the background just run up on the rocks to keep it from sinking?
If you haven't already - be sure to click the link at the bottom of that post. It takes you to the Belona site that has a bunch more of that photo series posted.