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Russia: 'Kursk' Operation, Delayed By Bad Weather, May Pose Other Dangers

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Salvage experts are nearing a critical point in their attempt to raise the wreck of the Russian submarine "Kursk," which sank last August following two powerful and still unexplained explosions. All 118 men on board were killed. If events run to schedule, divers by the end of the week will finish drilling holes in the "Kursk's" hull. The holes are to attach the heavy cables which are meant to haul the submarine to the surface. But before the lifting starts, the bow section -- which may contain unexploded torpedoes, and which may also hold the secret as to why the "Kursk" sank -- must be cut off. That brings with it the danger of explosion. And all the time, the salvage team is racing to beat bad weather. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports on the challenges and risks surrounding the controversial salvage operation.

Prague, 20 August 2001,(RFE/RL) -- Storms in the Barents Sea are already hampering efforts to salvage the "Kursk" nuclear submarine. The Russian navy said over the weekend that divers had to stop their underwater preparations for lifting the vessel because of high winds and heavy seas.

The divers are drilling a series of holes in the "Kursk's" hull to attach steel cables so that it can be hauled to the surface, complete with its nuclear reactor engines and conventionally armed missiles.

If the work stays on schedule, the drilling of the holes should be finished by late this week. Then, the shattered bow section of the submarine, which contains the torpedo compartment, will be cut off from the main part of the hull. It is considered too badly damaged to be raised, and will remain on the seabed.

Unexplained explosions in the bow area were the apparent cause of the sinking of the "Kursk" on 12 August last year, with the loss of all 118 men on board. Twelve bodies were subsequently removed from the sub. Russian officials say they only expect to recover one-third of the remaining bodies because the rest are likely to have been destroyed in the explosions. Russian President Vladimir Putin promised at the time that the bodies of the dead sailors would be returned to their families for proper burial.

Failing to raise the bow section may mean leaving behind valuable evidence about the cause of the fatal incident. Some environmentalists also say that cutting off the ruined bow section runs the risk of setting off additional explosions. Igor Kudrik of the Norwegian-based Bellona environmental group explains:

"The first and most dangerous point in the operation, to our point of view, is when they will try to cut off the bow part of the submarine, that is the torpedo section of the submarine. If they hit some of the torpedoes which are still scattered around the submarine, then it might provoke a new explosion which could damage the submarine's hull and [nuclear] reactor installations."

Lars Walder, a spokesman for Mammoet-Smit International -- the Dutch-based consortium leading the $70 million salvage operation -- acknowledges certain risks. Speaking from Rotterdam, Walder tells RFE/RL that there could, indeed, be an explosion if a torpedo is accidentally sawn through. But he says divers have so far found no remaining torpedoes, leading the salvage team to think they may have been detonated when the "Kursk" sank.

Walder also dismisses the suggestion that the "Kursk's" two nuclear reactors might become unstable during the course of separating the bow from the rest of the submarine:

"No, because the torpedo compartment is so far away from the radiation departments. And all the advisers we have -- nuclear experts from all sorts of companies, from the Russian side, and from our own company, and independent experts -- they all tell us that even if there is a [torpedo] explosion, that it should not be a problem [for the reactors]."

Walder says there is constant monitoring of the site and that radiation levels around the shut-down reactors are normal. He also notes that the lives of the divers will not be put at risk during the operation to cut off the bow because everything will be done by remote control.

Environmentalists' worries, however, do not stop there. They are also concerned about what could happen to the reactors if the salvage attempt runs into other difficulties. As Bellona analyst Kudrik puts it:

"The second stage, which is potentially quite dangerous to our point of view, is when they try to raise the submarine. If the vessel falls down and hits the seabed, there is a theoretical possibility that the reactors might start up, and they might get a reactor meltdown in the submarine."

Walder of the salvage consortium admits that raising the "Kursk" is a hard job, but he expresses confidence:

"It is technically a difficult operation, but all the equipment has been used very often before, and we have experience in the things we do, and we would not start if we did not think [this salvage] would be possible. But it is a difficult operation."

Walder's comments differ from those of Russian Rear Admiral Mikhail Motsak, who said in Murmansk late last month that there had been equipment malfunctions, and that the tools were not adapted to cutting through the type of steel used in the "Kursk's" hull. But Motsak also said that the equipment was being adjusted as work proceeded.

The salvage plans call for the "Kursk" to be raised next month. It will hang on its steel cables beneath a pontoon, which will then be towed to a shipyard near Murmansk. Two other pontoons, one on either side, will take over the load from the original carrier, and the submarine will be maneuvered into a dry dock. According to environmentalists, that's when things could potentially get even worse. Bellona's Kudrik explains:

"Once the submarine is on the surface, [if] something happens, it [would be] much more dangerous [for there to] be a release of radioactivity from the submarine's reactors, because then we are talking about air pollution, air contamination, and fallout to the neighboring settlements."

Further, the conventionally armed missiles aboard the "Kursk" are yet another source of concern. Kudrik notes that -- even if the Russian authorities have said that the missiles' containment area is strong enough to have resisted damage -- no one really knows the condition of the missiles inside.

He adds that Russian authorities have not resolved the problem of what to do with the wrecked vessel in the long run:

"Finally, our third concern is that they have no concrete, distinct plans about what they are going to do with the submarine once they put it into the dry dock in Roslyakovo shipyard, not far from Murmansk, a city with a population of 300,000 people."

The hulk of the "Kursk" will simply add to the serious nuclear hazards facing the inhabitants of the Kola Peninsula. Bellona says there are more than 100 decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines from the Northern Fleet moored along the peninsula. Some 70 of these still have spent nuclear fuel on board. Bellona says these submarines combined pose a potentially much greater danger than the "Kursk" alone.

Kudrik says Russia cannot handle the nuclear waste disposal on its own, and he called for increased international support for Moscow in dealing with the problem.