How does a nuclear submarine work

The Russian nuclear submarine fleet

Self-sufficiency through atomic energy

The nuclear submarines of the Russian Typhoon class are true giants of the oceans with their 171.5 meters in length, 12.2 meters in height and 22.8 meters in width. There is space for 150 sailors on the world's largest submarine.

Nuclear submarines have no supply problems, as all the energy they need is generated by nuclear reactors on board. This even enables pumps to be operated in the event that water enters the boat. Nuclear submarines can operate submerged for weeks without coming into contact with the outside air.

During the Cold War, nuclear submarines had great deterrent potential. Armed with up to 20 long-range missiles, a nuclear submarine positioned off the coast of a country poses a major threat.

Fall of the Kursk

But even the most modern technology does not protect against tragedies under water. One of the biggest submarine accidents was the sinking of the Kursk. The Russian nuclear submarine sank in August 2000 with a crew of 118 on board. For over a week, the world watched the chaotic rescue work and the attempts of the Russian Navy to downplay the disaster.

A German geologist in Norway recognized early on that an accident had occurred in the Barents Sea. But the rescue work came too late and the seafarers could no longer be helped. Today it is believed that the bow chambers of the Kursk were destroyed by the misfire of torpedoes on board.

Russian nuclear submarines - a ticking time bomb

The old Russian nuclear submarines are primarily a threat to the environment and the people who live near the nuclear submarine cemeteries. The wrecked nuclear submarines bob around in the port of Murmansk and other bays in the North Sea.

The submarines have to be constantly pumped full of air to prevent them from sinking. Otherwise the reactors would come into contact with water and rust even faster. The consequence would be that radioactivity would leak and contaminate the water and the entire environment. The situation is dire as the Russian submarines wait up to seventeen years to be scrapped.

The Russian government lacks the money and the technical knowledge for a professional disposal, which is comparable to that of a normal nuclear power plant. The scrapped nuclear submarines are a ticking time bomb. Radioactive accidents cannot be ruled out.

In 2003, Germany and Russia signed an agreement on assistance with the disposal of Russian nuclear submarines. To do this, however, the infrastructure for proper dismantling first had to be improved. In 2011, the German group Energiewerke Nord built an interim storage facility as a first step, and in 2015 the disposal center went into operation. The costs of the two systems amount to around 600 million euros.

Author: Sabine Kaufmann

SWR | As of: 08/12/2016, 11:00 am