At least 20 people have died in a freak accident aboard the K-152 Nerpa, a Russian nuclear attack submarine that was undergoing trials in the Sea of Japan before being leased to the Indian Navy, according to officials and media reports.
A faulty fire extinguisher spewing deadly freon gas is blamed for causing the deaths, plus a further two dozen injuries, aboard the Akula-II class attack sub. The ship’s nuclear reactor was completely undamaged, officials 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,” Russian naval spokesman Captain Igor Dygalo told journalists.
“The submarine is not damaged, its reactor works as normal, and background radiation levels are normal,” he added.
Dyagalo said that 208 people were aboard the Nerpa at the time, including 81 servicemen and plus naval technicians and workers from the Komsomolsk-na-Amur shipyard where the Nerpa was constructed. Fourteen civilians were among the dead, he said.
Russian press reports suggested that the accident happened near the bow of the ship as it was undergoing a test dive in the Sea of Japan near the huge Russian naval base of Vladivostok.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has instructed the Defence Ministry to conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation into the accident and provide the necessary assistance to the victims’ families.
There was no word on any possible Indian casualties, though some press reports last week suggested that an Indian Naval team of up to 40 persons would soon be heading for Vladivostok to familiarise themselves with the ship, which is due to be commissioned into the Indian Navy as the INS Chakra, under a ten year lease.
Indian crews have previously been training aboard Russian nuclear subs based near Sosnovy Bor, on the Baltic Sea, according to press reports.
‘No Indian crew’
Navy headquarters in New Delhi refused comments on whether the Akula-II class submarine involved in the accident was meant for the Indian Navy. A navy spokesperson said, “All we can say is that the submarine was not an Indian submarine. Nor did it have Indian crew.”
The navy is in the process of acquiring one Akula-class nuclear submarine on long-term lease from Russia in a deal worth some Rs 2,600 crore.
The warship is scheduled to be inducted around mid-2009. But navy sources acknowledged that the induction programme might suffer if the the submarine was actually the one meant for India. “It will depend on what comes out of the investigation report,” said a source, not wishing to be named.