K-159 (1963)

K-159 rotting pierside before the attempt to tow her to Polyarny. Note the four flotation drums. Photo by the Bellona Foundation.

Ship Type
Laid Down

K-159 was a Project 627A Kit-class (NATO: November-class) nuclear powered submarine. Laid down 15 August, 1962, K-159 commissioned 9 October, 1963. Less than two years later, on 2 March, 1965, he had his first malfunction, with a radiation leak from the reactor into the steam plant, contaminating the turbines. However, the leaks were simply plugged, and he operated for two more years before repairs were made. K-159 was taken in for repairs again from 1970-72, and 1979-80. He was decommissioned 30 May, 1989, and subsequently left to rot in Gremikha (near Murmansk). K-159 became increasingly rusty, and the hull was in less than seaworthy condition when, in 2003, it was decided to move him to Polyarny. There were a bunch of countries in the area who were a little worried about all these old subs that were rotting away with nuclear material still on board, because the Russians couldn't afford to dismantle them. So they donated $200 million for that purpose. K-159 was one of the lucky ones to be put out of his misery. However, rather than welding plates over the holes in the hull, so that he could be moved, the Russians simply welded 1940s-era floating drums to the hull. These drums were in nearly as bad a condition as K-159. Surprisingly, the skeleton crew did manage to keep the sub afloat during the trip, until they ran into a squall the night of 29-30 August. The flooding overwhelmed the crew, one of the floats broke off (and sank) and the old sub went down with nine of the ten men aboard. The wreck lies in about 780 feet of water near Norway, who really wants it gone. Russia is slowly working on salvaging the wreck, with assistance from the British apparently coming to nothing. Current projections include building a specialized salvage ship for the operation, further delaying the recovery.