It happened again: A Russian nuclear submarine caught fire. Reports said that the blaze was a result of welding repairs on the vessel, christened the Orel, which was parked in a shipyard for maintenance in the Arctic town of Severodvinsk. The rescue operation took hours, as people were evacuated while the Orel continued to burn. Luckily, the Orel’s reactor was shut off before the accident occurred, according to the Tass media agency, which reported that there were no weapons or nuclear fuel on board the sub at the time of the fire.
The Orel has the same design as the famous nuclear submarine the Kursk, which tragically sank in the Barents Sea in the year 2000, with a crew of 118 on board, as well as active reactors and combat weapons.
On Tuesday, firefighters struggled to extinguish the Orel’s rubber insulation material, which had caught on fire between the submarine’s exterior and interior hulls. The shipyard rescuers filled the dry dock with seawater to contain the blaze.
Orel is just the latest in a long history of accidents and catastrophes aboard Russia’s nuclear submarines. In 2011, repairs caused a fire on the nuclear sub Yekathernburg, injuring nine people. In January 2012, a worker accidentally set the nuclear submarine Gepard on fire in Alexandrovka, also during maintenance. And in September 2013, the Tomsk was engulfed in a fire after it docked at Bolshoy Kamen.
In the case of the doomed Kursk, conspiracy theories blossomed after the attack, with Russian admirals claiming for months afterwards that Americans had torpedoed the submarine. During the days immediately following the disaster, as the sailors were possibly still alive and trapped on the seabed, Russia refused to accept help offered by the U.S., Norway, and Great Britain. Eventually, Norwegian divers were allowed to reach the vessel, nine days after it sank; by that time, though, all 118 sailors and officers had perished.
Russia was badly shaken by the Kursk tragedy. Months afterwards, a letter was discovered that had been written by Captain-Lieutenant Dmitry Kolesnikov, listing the names of 23 sailors who had managed to survive for at least two and a half days in a compartment of the submarine. Meanwhile, the conspiracy theory that the Kursk had collided with a foreign vessel eventually faded away after a government commission released a report explaining that the Kursk had gone down because of a torpedo fuel leak that caused an explosion on board.
State Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov was not surprised to hear about another accident on a nuclear submarine on Tuesday. “A private aircraft crashed on runway with a snowplow, millions of scientific documents burned in the center of Moscow, a leading opposition politician got shot next to the Kremlin wall—these are examples of a repressive and corrupt political system, which causes catastrophes in all spheres on all levels,” Gudkov said.
“On my recent visit on a nuclear missile carrier, I asked if the vessel was combat-ready,” Gudkov added. “It turned out that millions of dollars were needed to fix that vessel and at least six months of work, but there is no transparent mechanism to control state money and prevent theft.”
Russia is thought to have the world’s biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons. The military doctrine signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last December states that “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons or any other types of weapons of mass destruction against Russia.” To fulfill this strategy, the Russian navy has been fixing and upgrading 10 older nuclear submarines; the Orel was one of them.
“Huge money is being invested in new Borey-class nuclear submarines, able to carry Bulava missiles. But it takes a long time to deploy them: They started building the first one in the series, Dmitry Dolgorukiy, in 1996 and finished only now,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. “The Russian military-industrial complex often demonstrates the worst of Soviet practices.”
Golts added that the fire on the Orel was “nothing surprising.”