The U.S. developed the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, in 1954. It was a key moment in the Cold War, one that allowed the United States to dominate the seas. The sub could stay submerged for weeks at a time. Five years later, the Soviets respond with a nuclear sub, K19, but it earned the nickname “The Widow Maker.”
Several people died in the construction of the K19. Taylor Downing, a historian, tells Smithsonian that the construction of the ship was too hasty because the USSR was trying to catch up to the U.S.
In July 1961, K19 was off the coast in Greenland, trying to prove that their technology matched the Americans. But a pipe ruptured in the nuclear reactor. Ultimately, they saved the ship, but seven of the engineering team died within two months and 15 crew members died within two years, all from radiation exposure.
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