A note from the translator: One of the things I find most striking about Russia’s recent misadventure with its submarine is how little sense is being written about it. This is one of the best I could find. Yet, it, too, disappoints – in a very Russian way. Here we have a professional, writing a popular explanation in what is left of Russia’s free press. Well and good. But he too suffers from a peculair Russian syndrome. The question that immediately occurred to me – and I am sure it would to any Western reader – was: how is fire prevention and firefighting done on the submarines of other countries? The author of the article below writes as if submarines are only made in Russia. [Any submariners out there among LR’s readers willing to enlighten me/us?] Why do Russians always have to re-invent the wheel? This clearly sensible writer appears to live on an island called Russia, just like the people he disapproves of.
Of Pikes and Freon
by Alexander Pokrovsky, Submariner and Author
Translated from the Russian by Dave Essel
“On 8 Novermber at 20:30 local time, the multipurpose submarine Nerpa (project 971 Shchuka-B [shchuka = pike] sailed from its ZATO (Closed Territorial-Administrative Settlement ) Bolshoi Kamen base to undergo sea trials. During these trials, the freon-release fire extinguishing system went off unexpectedly. Six servicemen and 14 civilians died. A further 22 people required hospital treatment. All told, there were 208 people on board the submarine, of whom 81 were servicemen.” Thus the official press release.
The press office of the navy later issued a correction: the dead consisted of 3 servicemen and 17 civilians.
One of the things that makes the Project 971 Shchuka-B special is that it involves more automated systems that previous designs. Command and control is from a single central command centre. The boat is run by a crew of 73.
The fact that there were 208 people on board goes to show that there was a large contingent of boatyard staff in attendance for the handover trials. That in turn means that its was awfully cramped on board, with no one having enough room for anything, including sleeping. A population density of 2 people per square metre. Sea trials can go on for up to 10 days and sleeping would have been practically impossible.
But sea trials are like that, since a boat’s systems can only be tested for real while sailing for real. There is almost always some incident or other during trials. It’s a major success if nothing goes wrong.
The media reported that “a fire occurred” and that this was followed by the “unsanctioned functioning of the (freon) fire extinguishing system”.
The crux of the matter, however is that whilst fires can occur unexpectedly, “unsanctioned functioning of the (freon) fire extinguishing systems” cannot. As I deliberately mentioned at the start of this article, this sub design differs from its predecessors in that all command and control is carried out from a single centre. So freon could not have been released “unexpectedly” into various compartments.
I sailed on freon-protected boats for 10 years. And for the whole of those 10 years, I and every crew member had to have our portable respirator, designed to protect our lungs and lives, with us at all times – at meals, in the toilet, in bed.
One can’t release freon by a simple push of a button. It is released by turning a valve. The valve apparatus is quite bulky. You couldn’t turn it by mistake. The valve gear even has some free play before it begins operating to protect from bumps against it leading to freon release in a compartment.
Nota bene once again that freon is not released automatically precisely because there could be people who have not put their respirators on in the release compartment.
Mistakes are possible, however. Freon could be released into the wrong compartment. This has happened. On at least one occasion, the shipyard marked the pipes wrong and when there was a fire, the crew turned the valve and unexpectedly sent freon to the wrong compartment. Some seamen were suffocated.
Another thing about freon. It is only ever used on large-scale fires on board submarines. Prior to its being deployed, all crew must have put their respirators on properly. Because they will die of suffocation otherwise.
Furthermore, freon makes all a compartment’s electrical distribution panels and other electronics inoperable after it has been used. That is to say that compartments where freon has been released cease to function properly. Submariners there do not like to use the stuff.
Let’s now return to the matter of handover trial teams. The boat was out on sea trials. That means that it had still not been accepted by the navy. The handover team, under the command of the submarine’s crew, are due to check the good working of all systems. The team consists of contractors, sub-contractors, and shipyard workers. They may well be very good specialists in their own fields but they not experts at running a submarine. It’s not surprising therefore that of the dead, 17 were civilians and only 3 servicemen. The civilians did not understand the importance of keeping one’s respirator to hand at all times.
Handover teams are something else. They are workers, not disciplined sailors, and so are impossible to control. They are forever getting themselves into problems. And here we have more than 100 of them on one boat!
Whenever we had non-submariners on our boat, our second in command would ensure a crew member shadowed each and everyone of them, keeping a sharp eye open, because spanners left in electrical distribution boxes were only to be expected. And short-circuits lead to fires. All that would be needed was for the boat to rock a bit for the spanner to short something out.
Now here were have 208 people on board, only 81 of them submariners. That’s 127 people to shadow and with 81 crew, that’s leaves 46 left without supervision.
…It’s simply incomprehensible. We should be in mourning but instead we have the usual show-time on television and all they’re prepared to say about the Nerpa is that the “reactor is working fine” and “other onboard mechanisms are fully operational”.
Things are not “working fine” around here. Nothing’s fine when people serve the metal instead of metal serving the people.
Why is freon being used at all as a fire extinguisher on board a modern – super-modern – boat? Why?
Is there a “freon lobby” working on behalf of the chemical?
A long time ago, back in the early 90s, the navy began testing a new fire extinguishing system. The idea was that, as soon a a fire broke out, the amount of oxygen in the air of the affected compartment would be reduced from 21% to 12% because at that oxygen level, fires stop burning almost instantaneously. Tests to achieve this include the spraying of special aerosols, burning off the surplus oxygen with special devices and, simplest of all, reducing the proportion of oxygen in the air by increasing the air pressure. This required only that the pressure be increased by half an atmosphere through the release of compressed nitrogen into the compartment from storage cylinders. Nitrogen poured into the compartment, bringing the proportion of oxygen down to 12% and the fire would go out straight away, as if someone had waved a magic wand at it.
And how did this affect people? Was this low level of oxygen harmful to them? Would an extra half atmosphere of pressure hurt them?
Experiments were carried out. People were okay with it. They could bear to be in a place with 12% oxygen in the air they were breathing at half an atmosphere above normal pressure. They did not suffocate.
So what do we have today? How can it be that, 15 years on, a modern submarine is still fitted with a freon fire extinguishing system?
Simple. The tests I referred to were carried out in the 90s but were never completed – because the funding ran out. So we still use freon on our boats.
That’s the way we do things. We build an ultra-modern submarine but still make use of some obsolete technologies on it. It’s like still using some stone-age tools in the era of lasers.
We make something good, modern, and new but there’s still a flint-headed axe incorporated in it somewhere… A time-bomb waiting to go off.
PS: Now the talk is of the fact that since this was a highly automated boat, the freon was released automatically. An error in the central control system. If that is true, then our designers are to be congratulated for their unbelievable achievement.
Yes, a submarine may be highly automated and it may have automatic freon release systems. But it should be released automatically only into unoccupied compartments, where it certain that there is no one there. If the compartments have people in them, then by definition they need to be capable of supporting life and the release of a substance like freon should only be done – deliberately – manually.
The design should include an override to prevent freon from being released into a compartment in which there are people. Otherwise, there will be accidents. One should only release freon in a compartment after everyone has donned their respirators. Freon kills by suffocation.
Submarines should not be built over periods of 10 or more years. Technologies move on and a boat built in this way is obsolete before it sets off on its maiden voyage.
Whether the submarine was afloat or still in the shipyard, after 10 years it was in need of a full overhaul.
Furthermore, 10 years down the road, tasks will have changed, as the world will have. You can’t just make weapons out of the blue. Weapons are made to suit various tactical and strategic tasks. And plenty changes in 10 years. Some friends cease to be so, some enemies too. Example: in 1941, Nazi Germany was the USA’s enemy, in 1951 it no longer was.
What dangers arise from a situation like this one? Imagine that you are building an atomic nuclear-missile-carrying submarine. You take 10 years to build it and when it’s ready, the supposed enemy no longer exists.
What happens? Now you have got the weapon, you need an enemy for it to to be up against. That means you have a weapon in need of a tactical purpose. The possession of such a weapon then actually begins to change your tactics.