Volodymyr Zhemchuzhnykov is a navy officer who, since 1977 and for twenty years, served on nuclear submarines. He started his service as a commander of the remote control group, and finished as a deputy head of the electromechanical submarine connection service being a captain 2nd rank.
In an interview for the Uatom.org website, Volodymyr Zhemchuzhnykov told about his way as an atomic submariner, how a nuclear submarine is equipped inside and how the life of the crew under water is organized. Scared readers with stories about extreme cases and shared his thoughts on the future of nuclear submarines.
– Volodymyr, tell us how you became an officer in the nuclear fleet?
I dreamed of becoming a sailor, but I never thought that I would be a submariner. My friend entered and graduated from the Kaliningrad Naval School, so I wanted to study there. However, the parents advised me to go to a higher educational institution, and not to a secondary education institution. The closest one to us was in Sevastopol, but when I arrived, I found out that submariners were being trained at the school. I deliberately flunked the first exam in mathematics and immediately left.
Then it happened that my cousin, with whom we were born the same year, entered the Kostroma military chemical school. Although I didn’t say anything, he knew about my dream and was upset that I didn’t enter anywhere. After school, I went to work, and at this time, 1971-1972, the school program changed completely, especially in mathematics. I didn’t know about it, although I planned to enter next year, I even passed the medical examination. After arrival in Sevastopol, I was in the second flow. In the first one there were Sevastopol residents, and the flow was about 120-150 people. Of these, 3 or 5 people passed the written exam in mathematics under the new program. The next day, I passed the exam, the results were similar. Everyone with an average GPA above 4.5 was left to retake. Thanks to this and since my GPA was almost 4.9, I successfully passed this exam and the subsequent ones and entered.
– In an interview for the Netishyn information portal, you said that the first submarine you went on was called K-10, tell us about this boat. How many crew members were on the boat?
This is a 1st generation 675 boat with cruise missiles designed for a crew of 110-115 people. It was constructed in 1965 and was not yet modernized, the boats were modernized since the next years. I got to this boat in 1977, it means, it was not new. I served there for four years, after which I went to a new formation. Subsequently, this boat was relocated from kamchatka to the prymorskyi territory at the base of the “illich testament” state farm, where in 1984 or 1985, I definitely do not remember, because we were in the velykyi kamin city, in one of the exits into the sea, he collided with the Chinese submarine. No one was killed there, just a broken nose of the boat, but a decision was made on the inappropriateness of its further use and recovery
– How the boat crew was selected? Or for each boat a certain crew was fixed?
Our unit in the Pacific Fleet, which was equipped with six boats, included seven crews. I served in the second, which was called a technical crew. According to the rule, it should not go to sea. When the boat returned from the combat campaign, the second (technical) crew go there for further repair, during which it eliminated boat malfunctions, perform the task, checked it in the sea, and then transferred to the crew that went to sea.
It was the other way around. The second team, not the first, went to sea. The boats were accepted from the factory after modernization. This stage was 5-7 years. Accordingly, the not floating team came, because many tasks should be performed at the base during short trips into the sea.
Our team was experienced, coordinated, cohesive, so we conducted the combat service.
The selection … there was no such selection. When the young lieutenant came to the headquarters, his first position in the fleet was elected, that is, he was asked where he wanted to go to the service. Everyone wanted to go to new boats, but my friend served there. He said: “If you go to new boats, they are just from the factory, you will not get apartments for service on new boats, but there are a lot of apartments for old boats.”
– Were the apartments recorded by a boat?
By crews. That is, when you left the crew, you left the apartment. For the next one who came, it was an empty apartment. Therefore, I went to the boats with apartments. The personnel department was very surprised when I came and asked for an old boat.
– What training the crew passed before going aboard the boat?
There is a coast command center, which as a fully equipped computer board of the boat, only without an active power installation. The power installation is the same on the 1st generation boats. There was and probably is now the first Obninsk nuclear power plant, in fact, this is a boat board: boat operating reactor, steam power plant – steam generator and turbine with suspended turbine generator, all combat posts. However, it was unprofitable to take crews from kamchatka there, so training was conducted in own training center.
There was also an academic year in the Navy. It was divided into two halves a year: the first (summer) and the second (winter).
Therefore, twice a year at different periods of training, we underwent diving training: getting out of a sunken submarine, practicing dives, work at depth, etc.
The crew had to undergo training after vacation, on which, as a rule, we went with the entire crew. That is, we handed over the boat, another crew received it in a hot condition with an operating installation to check it immediately. After vacation, we underwent a two-week training course, and once every three months, we did fire or water ingress survival training on a boat.
– Please explain if the submariner served in the crew, was the crew tied to the boat? Have you always been on the same boat?
Me – not. The submarine had a tactical number. For example, K-10 is a classified name.
– Why is it classified, isn’t it a model?
This is the tactical number of the boat. K is cruising, 10 is a serial number.
– Were there a lot of K-10 boats or was it the one?
K-10 is one. It’s just its number. Let’s suppose K-175 is the same boat, only with a different number.
The crew has no the tactical number. For example, we served in military unit No. 20809 – this is not a classified name. Otherwise, it would have been written “The crew of the K-10 submarine.” We had two stamps “20809” – a well-known name, where letters were written, as well as “Crew 273” – a classified name.
– What boats did you serve on?
After four years of service on the 1st generation boat, I completed a one-year training course at the obninsk training center on the 671-RTM boat. These are boats of the 80s. After that, I also was taken to the second, technical crew “85”. The training was conducted in two circles – large and small. A large circle was passed by the crew that received the boat from the factory. That is, the crew from kamchatka went to Obninsk, where they were trained, then to the factory in komsomolsk-on-amur, where they received and completed the construction of the boat, studied and only then returned to Kamchatka again. A small circle is when the crew from Kamchatka went to obninsk, studied and returned to kamchatka without a boat.
– Is it true that the crew of submarines should have excellent hearing? Why?
We used to say this: “There are no sick people on the submarine, there are alive and dead.”
Diseases were not recognized. We had sailors and officers with bad hearing, especially among the turbine operators. Acousticians – those who listen to the sea – should have excellent hearing. They had their hearing checked.
There are about six or seven people in the crew. That is, the crew was divided into three shifts, each was on watch for four hours, and rest for eight hours. Of course, it was only called so, but they were really engaged in combat training and other work. So the acousticians had two people on watch (this is already six people) and the commander of the combat unit, who assigned their watch shifts, he was the seventh acoustician.
– Tell us about the submersion of the submarine. What did the person feel during this? Is it true that the submarine deformed, decreased in volume?
Many people have asked me how it is. The submarine is a kind of passenger car of the train. Only without windows. Small cabins and that is all. You didn’t feel if it was sailing or standing. If you did not know that you were under water, then you did not immediately understand. Only in a storm.
On the boat, a strong storm was felt at 100 m of depth, you were rocked. In a five-six-point storm, the boat was put on board by three-four degrees. At a depth of 40 m, the storm was felt just as it was on the surface: it was not only put from the board to board, but also from the bow to the stern.
Indeed, during the submersion, the boat was not deformed, it was compressed.
Like any sealed item. For every 10 m of submersion, the internal volume changed by 3 tons (3 cubic meters). The boat became heavier by 3 tons. That is, the volume decreased, while the weight remained the same. Since there was a volume with a constant weight, the boat became heavier.
We even experimented. When we went to a deep-sea test (submersion to a depth of 380 m), we hung a small sinker by a rope or thread clinging it to the ceiling so that it did not touch the deck. When the boat reached a predetermined depth, the sinker lay down on the deck, and the rope sagged.
– What directly did you feel during the submersion?
Absolutely nothing, only the hull cracked or creaked a little. You didn’t know how it was until you could see the depth.
– That is, inside the boat, the pressure was specially regulated or compensated? Or didn’t change at all?
Changed. Many valves were controlled by air. When the valve was opened (closed), the pressure was released into the compartment. During the submersion, the mechanic gave command “Batten down the upper hatch” and made a record in the log about atmospheric pressure value.
The mechanic had an aneroid barometer on his table, which measured the atmospheric pressure inside the boat. For twelve hours, the pressure increased to 800-810 mm – this is the limit of barometer measurement. A person, if he did not have sick teeth or ears, did not feel a pressure increase, because this happened gradually.
Before surfacing, the pressure was reduced to the values that were before submersion or lower. To do this, the compressor was started. When the bilge workers opened the hatch, the air could be heard whistling. At the same time, the commander, who was standing on the ladder below, held the sailor so that he would not fly out if the pressure in the boat was above the atmospheric one.
– How deep was the boat you sailed submerged?
The submersion depth limit for a 671-RTM nuclear submarine is 420 m. The boat submerged to such a depth only once during the entire time when factory deep-sea tests were conducted.
There was also a working depth. Ours was 380m.
There was also a safe depth, which was determined by sinking of surface ships so that they could not hit the submarine. There was command “Dive to a safe depth” and everyone knew that the boat had sunk by 40 m. It is the same for all boats. Up to 40 m, the boat could sail with preparedness No. 2, that is, the personnel could have a rest.
Any surfacing is a combat alert.
When the boat was surfacing, it first returned to a safe depth, listened to the horizon, and only then surfaced under the periscope for combat alert, that is, everyone was at combat posts.
Previously, we had one combat alert with a long signal – a howler, and then, due to the fact that we often had to emerge, we made a combat training alert with a signal – three short and one long ring.
– What else the depth to which the boat had to submerge depended on?
Everything was determined by the hydrology of the sea and the depth of the area where you sailed.
If the boat sailed in coastal areas, the distance to the bottom should be greater than the length of the hull. For example, our boat had a hull length of 109 m. This means that at a depth of 400 m the boat could submerge up to 300. “Hydrology of the sea” is the speed of sound in water, depending on salinity and temperature
There is a special device that measures the speed of sound distribution in water. It changed in proportion to the density. The saltier the water, the denser it is. For example, if there was a leap in speed of sound, it meant that the boat had entered denser waters. This was called the leap layer.
If the boat was in the waters where the speed of sound is greater, that is, the signal is slow at first, and then it is reflected on a denser water layer, then it could be detected by surface ships. If the crew, on the contrary, avoided them, then the boat should have been located under the waters, where a leap in the speed of sound was observed. In order to prevent detection of the submarine by the same submarine, it was necessary to be above a dense water layer, since a very strong signal refraction could occur, which reduces the possibility of detection.
– Tell us how the boat was arranged inside? What were the zones?
All the submarines that we had were double-hulled. They consisted of a robust hull, where the personnel lived and equipment was located, and a light, streamlined hull.
The robust hull, in turn, consisted of several cylinders of different diameters, shells connecting cylinders of different sizes, and two cones in the bow and stern, which ended with spheres. That is, it is not streamlined. Of course, the largest diameters of the submarine are in the power compartments – reactor, turbine.
– So was the reactor in the middle of the boat? And how did you bypass it?
Yes, the boat consisted of compartments. For example, we had an 8-compartment submarine. The first compartment is a torpedo one. Torpedo tubes, rack torpedoes, and batteries in the hold were placed.
The reactor is sealed, how to bypass it? We had a single-shaft, two-reactor plant, that is, two reactors were operated for one turbine and two turbine generators. The reactors were located side by side in the so-called hardware enclosure, on whose top windows were located. The right side is reactor No. 1, the left side is reactor No. 2. Reactors of the right and left sides. In the Navy they were called apparatuses. They had mechanical reactivity control.
The power level was controlled by automatic control rods, and burnup, slagging and poisoning were compensated by three compensating grids, two of which were peripheral. This is a set of perforated stainless steel plates 6mm thick. Fuel rods were inserted into each perforation, along which grids moved.
How the reactor was operated? First, the reactivity was released, then it was increased to a critical state to provide a self-sustaining reaction. Even at minus the fourth degree of a percentage, this was fixed by instruments on the boat. If you continue to increase it to a critical state, the automatic control rod went down to compensate the excessive reactivity.
The most effective is the middle zone. The reactor is very small in size – 900×1020 mm in diameter with a capacity of 85 MW, that is, two reactors are of 170 MW. The largest boat reactors in my memory were the OK-300 and OK-350 installations with a capacity of 90 MW.
670 submarine-launched cruise missile boats had one reactor and one turbine. That is, if the protection system actuated, then the boat remained practically without power.
– How was the submarine equipped in everyday life?
The first compartment is a torpedo one. It is not residential, only watches are conducted there.
The second compartment is residential, where cabins and a galley were placed. There were also two wardrooms – for officers and personnel. We lived on the middle deck, and the sailors lived on the lower one next to the galley. Meals were in shifts. The first to eat were those who started their watch, the second – those who had a rest. The last to eat were those who completed their watch.
The third compartment is the central post, where the navigational cabin, sonar cabin, boat control post, combat post for the BCh-5 commander were located, where the mechanical engineer on duty sat.
The fourth compartment is a reactor one. The reactor was below a deck. There was nothing in the place of passage, only pipes could be. Four steam generators were located around the reactor, on whose top a pump was hung to remove water. Steam immediately went into the fifth compartment to the turbine both from one side and from the other. As at a nuclear power plant, the baffles were evacuated. There were gas-tight compressors that formed to 50 mm of vacuum. There were also special air conditioners for cooling (universal cooling fans). The boat personnel could only see the electric drives through the window. The expansion tank of the third side, which cooled the radioactive equipment, was also hidden in the iron-water protection tank. It was filled with boron carbide, and stainless steel sheets were placed on the top, on which we walked. That is, if you need to check why the rod was not controlled, or, perhaps, there was stagnation of water, then it was necessary to go into the vestibule lock, close it and equalize pressure, and then go down the inclined ladder. In the baffle, there were CPS drives (reactor control and protection system – ed.), emergency protection with its electric drives, charge loading (unloading) nozzles, ion exchange filters and other equipment were taken out.
The reactor compartment is not residential, even watches were not kept there, although it is passable. If the reactor operated at a capacity of more than 30%, then the personnel kept watch in the third or fifth compartment. If more than 50%, then the passage through the compartment was prohibited, but no one observed this, because everyone wanted to have lunch.
– What is the dose rate, radiation background?
I don’t know. Although everyone had dosimeters, no one measured. We did not have any radiation safety standards, only an annual dose of 3 rem and everyone was calm.
Not radiation is the worst thing on the boat. Not mechanical damage and not a fire. On the boat, the gas composition of the air is very important.
It happened that we submerged and the boat was not ventilated for three months, that is, the air composition did not change. The K-3 electric reserve was on the boat, which produced oxygen for the compartments, and pumped hydrogen overboard. There was also a marine regenerative unit, which absorbed CO2 and additionally oxidized CO. Then the usual air composition was obtained: 22-23% oxygen and up to 0.8% CO2. However, there were cases when the marine regenerative unit was inoperable and there was a leakage of carbon dioxide due to heating by the ChP-V chemical lime absorber. When CO2 was heated up, the compressor pumped it overboard. If there were leaks in piping, then carbon dioxide penetrated into the compartments, which had a very bad effect on the cardiovascular system, and fatigue appeared. There were also cases when turbine oil or fuel leaked, then nitrogen oxide concentration increased and phenols appeared in the compartments. This is the scariest thing on the boat.
– What were the duties of the atomic fleet officers? What were you personally responsible for?
Each officer had a job description, where duties were defined and distributed according to standard ship schedules, including actions during preparedness No. 2, surface and underwater position of the boat, emergency alarm, fire, and water ingress.
I was the BCh-5 commander. My duties included: maintain the boat in good technical condition, prepared for combat missions, organize and manage the crew during the struggle for survival in case of emergency damage, manage the submarine under preparedness No. 1. When it was usual preparedness No. 2, the boat was run by watch officers, watch mechanical engineers. During the alert, they had other duties, and I, as a BCh-5 commander, headed the combat post of the watch mechanical engineer that is, I ran the submarine.
– What could be taken on board the boat?
Everything you need, everything you should and you can take. For example, in my free time I formed books. So I took a lot of magazines from which I made books. Items such as bedding or disposable underwear were on the boat and were provided to the crew. Once a week, dirty clothes were thrown overboard, nothing was left for washing.
The only thing that was not allowed to take cameras, because photography was prohibited, but we had two full-time photographers: one was an intelligence officer, commander of a special forces group, the other was a deputy commander for political affairs. They could take pictures; it was officially written in their duties.
– Tell us, how long were campaigns on the submarine? What is the longest trip you have had?
Everything depended on the submarine design, on the task being performed. Ordinary trips to the sea to work out the elements of combat training – at least for three days, maximum – for two weeks. The duration of combat service depended on the autonomy of the submarine.
My longest campaign was 240 days.
However, we weren’t underwater all the time. Repairs were done abroad. That is, the boat, after having made an autonomous trip, stopped to eliminate malfunctions at a maneuverable base point. Within a month we were making repair in Aden with the removed (inoperable) installation. When we disconnected the installation for the first time, we found a large number of malfunctions during startup, so we decided to continue repairing with an operating main power installation. The shift was constantly on the boat and it was incredibly hot. The boat did not have electric air conditioners, only steam-jet refrigeration machines, which were cooled with water in order to maintain a microclimate on the boat and provide conditions for the life of the crew.
– In the already mentioned interview, you noted that you were in extreme situations, tell us what you had to go through?
There were many extreme situations, there were fires. I was already the BCh-5 commander; this was my first or second introduction. We were standing at the base and a fire broke out in the turbine compartment. I said I can handle it. We needed to make quick decisions and direct our actions.
The decision time to turn on the gas fire extinguishing system is 90 seconds, otherwise you would not extinguish the fire.
In the event of a fire, any compartment was sealed from both sides, no one would be able to get out. The crew understood that if they did not do this, then everyone would die.
When I was the commander of the electrical compartment, we had a deep water submersion. Somewhere at a depth of 300 meters, a tread plug on the refrigeration machine was torn out and water began to enter the compartment. The hole was about 2-3 cm in diameter. A jet of water under a pressure of 30 atmospheres was sprayed into the compartment and only water mist was visible, but it was not clear where it came from. I immediately reported that the refrigerator condenser lid had exploded. However, when I went down, I saw that the water was hitting the jet, falling into the lid and sprayed, and I could see it only when it flew away from the lid. There was an emergency tool in the compartment, we hammered a chop into it and surfaced.
For all the time of my service on different boats, there were no radiation accidents.
– Which stories could you remember and tell our readers?
Once we were waiting for a commission on a transshipment vessel. The duty officer was making a round and saw there was a pipe about three meters long, and said to remove it. Two sailors came and carried this pipe first to one compartment – they were kicked out, then to another… They walked around the ship until the loaders saw that the sailors were carrying an operating channel. As a result, they, and everyone else, received insane exposure doses.
There was another case. After core refueling, the apparatus was hydraulically tested. So as nothing would fly out of the core if something was done wrong there, special stops were placed. Due to the lack of time, it was decided not to put them. Pressure was increased and water began to seep through the reactor head assembly. To seal the head assembly, there was a self-sealing lens gasket: the greater the pressure, the more it was squeezed out. So, the gasket was placed on the wrong side, besides, there were no stops, and the pressure continued increase further from 130 to 140 kg.
As a result, control rods flew out under pressure and a thermal explosion occurred. Somewhere at a height of 30 m, a head assembly flew out along with a fuel assembly. I was just standing with my crew at the dock and saw this. The light was so blue. The head assembly, which weighed 3 tons, on the Berezina floating base and pierced it. The floating base sank together with three moored underwater diesel boats. Nine loaders died. They were simply torn apart.
The remains were collected and buried at a radioactive waste burial site in a nine-meter pipe.
It was closed with a concrete cork, and a lead slab was laid on top. Parents were only shown from a helicopter where they were buried.
– Who was responsible for this accident?
No one in the fleet was responsible for anything.
Who would answer? All died.
– In 2021, some countries, including the United States, Great Britain and Australia, announced the construction of nuclear submarines. In your opinion, what is the potential of nuclear submarines today?
Why is submarine good as a nuclear-powered boat? It has no service life limit. He can go to sea for years. For example, our boat reactor campaign lasted eight years.
Transport reactors are developed very quickly. That is why submarines have great potential. In addition, they can be incredibly large, like a launch pad for ballistic missiles. In Russia there are Akula 949 boats with parallel two strong hulls. There are three transitions between them and all this is combined into one light, streamlined hull, between which cruise missile containers are placed. You can realize the size of the deck, if you know that KAMAZ can freely turn around on it. There is a series of such boats. Their displacement, depending on the missiles they carry, is from 21 to 25 thousand tons. Can you imagine what a boat 12-16 m in diameter is like?
– Do you agree with the decision to abandon nuclear weapons?
I think this is a wrong decision. It was beneficial for everyone, especially for the United States. What were the states afraid of? That these weapons will be out of control and appear on the black market.
We had the world’s third nuclear weapons capability! Of course, their maintenance is a great luxury and a considerable expense, but we could abandon the weapons not completely. We had carriers, strategic missiles and aviation. I believe that the refusal was impulsive. They pressed Leonid Kravchuk, and he agreed, although Leonid Kuchma had already signed the document. We refused for fuel, but, as always, Ukraine was deceived. We had to get so much of this fuel that we would still have enough of it! If we transform the cost of one nuclear warhead into a monetary equivalent and compare the price with fuel, these are not commensurate sizes.
So the planes were taken from us, the mines were blown up, as for the missiles and other strategic aircraft, instead of selling them, we simply cut them. There are no carriers or nuclear weapons left.
– In your opinion, does Ukraine have the potential to develop and store nuclear weapons?
Ukraine has the main thing – it is uranium ores. However, Ukraine has nothing else, no other technologies. It does not even process its own ore for fuel. In order to create nuclear weapons, it is necessary to enrich uranium or plutonium. Plutonium is produced in breeders, multiplier reactors, after that it is extracted, separated, purified, isolated, and then a bomb is formed from it. The last breeder reactor in Russia was closed 4-5 years ago, but they can enrich uranium in gas centrifuges. We do not have them; it is very expensive.
– Can we restore it?
Of course not. Even if there is a warhead, it has to be delivered somehow. There should be missiles that fly at least 2000-3000 km to drop it somewhere.
– Taking into the large-scale Russian invasion and putin’s statements, is it possible for an aggressor country to use nuclear weapons?
I believe that the probability is always there, but very small. Nuclear weapons cannot be used when their army is present on the territory, because their personnel will also suffer. If to drop to another place, NATO countries will suffer. That is, we do not have such a big country to just drop a bomb.
One American observer said: “I don’t believe they will drop a nuclear bomb, even on some third world country, but they can make a nuclear explosion somewhere on an atoll or in the ocean. To demonstrate their readiness for anything”.
– In your opinion, what is the probability of the appearance and use of submarines in the Black Sea?
There is a memorandum prohibiting all countries entering the Black Sea water area to have nuclear engines on boats or ships. It also prohibits the presence of ships at sea with nuclear warheads. It’s been said that russia brought nuclear weapons to Crimea… If this is true, then it was back in 2016-2017.
– It means that the presence of nuclear submarines will be a violation.
They will not be passed. The only way to enter the Black Sea is through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, which, according to international law, are considered international, although they belong to Turkey. An international convention prohibits the passage of nuclear submarines into the Black Sea. It makes no difference whether it is a civilian ship, or icebreakers, etc.
– Do you think that nuclear weapons are a good invention or should they be prohibited so that no one has them?
In my opinion, there should be a nuclear arsenal, but controlled by some kind of international council. Of course, nuclear weapons should not be used on Earth for war, on the contrary, only for its protection, for example, if there is an asteroid threat.
The Editorial Board of the Uatom.org website