K-19 submariner 'saved the world', Gorbachev tells Nobel committee

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The Independent Online

A disgraced Soviet submarine captain played by Harrison Ford in the Hollywood thriller K-19: The Widowmaker has posthumously been put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize for averting a Chernobyl-style nuclear explosion at the height of the Cold War.

The nomination, for Captain Nikolai Zateev and the crew of K-19, is being supported by Mikhail Gorbachev, a past winner of the prize. Mr Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, argues that the submarine crew averted what would have been an appalling nuclear accident and possibly a third world war.

Details of the accident, which took place on 4 July 1961 in the Atlantic Ocean off the Norwegian Coast, remained an embarrassing secret for the Soviet authorities for almost 30 years and were only disclosed in 1990 under Mr Gorbachev's policy of glasnost or openness.

When launched, K-19 was the first Soviet submarine to carry three nuclear ballistic missiles and was regarded as the pride of the USSR's Northern Fleet.

It had been hastily built, however, as a riposte to America's "George Washington" class of nuclear submarines, as its crew found out to their cost during an infamous exercise called Polar Circle.

Large amounts of coolant leaked from the vessel's nuclear reactor that had overheated - which, unchecked, would have led to a powerful nuclear explosion.

Captain Zateev, who died in 1998, ordered the crew to repair the leak. After about two hours, the situation was brought under control but not before many of the crew, who knew the risks they were taking, had received large doses of radiation.

Eight crew died of radiation sickness and less than 60 of the 139-strong crew survive today.

Mr Gorbachev has written to the Nobel Committee praising "the personal courage of these heroes," which, he says, "averted a thermal explosion of the reactor and a subsequent environmental disaster".

"The explosion onboard the K-19 could have been dozens of times more powerful than that at the Chernobyl power plant," he said. "At that complicated period of the Cold War ... an explosion could have been seen as a military provocation by the USSR. A response from the US and Nato could have come quickly. It is hard to imagine what this could have led to," wrote Gorbachev, who won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. "All ... deserve to be recognised by humankind as people who did all they could to save the world."

So obscure is the incident within Russia, the result of a three decade-long cover-up, that many modern-day Russian submariners know nothing about it. Details were only disclosed in 1990 in the Communist party daily Pravda.

Instead of being thanked for what he had done Captain Zateev was considered an embarrassment by the Soviet authorities and was quietly discharged.