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Russia: 'Kursk' Salvage Effort Moves Forward, Despite Snags, Critics

Efforts to raise the sunken Russian submarine "Kursk" hit another snag this week when a cable on a crucial underwater saw broke. The saw was repaired and work has resumed, but what can't be smoothed over are questions about the safety of the operation -- bo th for the divers and the public.

Moscow, 6 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- British deep-sea divers are using a unique underwater saw in their efforts to raise the Russian nuclear submarine "Kursk," which sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea a year ago, killing all 118 crew members on board.

The saw is being used to slice off the bow of the "Kursk," where the ship's torpedoes were stored. The mangled bow will remain on the sea floor, while the remainder of the vessel -- including conventionally armed missiles and its two nuclear reactors -- will be brought to the surface in a delicate operation that officials hope to complete later this month.

Last week, the Dutch salvage team began work to cut off the 20,000-tonne sub's front section. According to Northern F leet officials, the remote-controlled underwater saw has already cut 1.5 meters deep into the outer hull.

But work was interrupted earlier this week when one of the cables on the saw tore apart after hitting a rock.

Captain Igor Dygalo, assistant to the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, told RFE/RL yesterday that he was hopeful that the problem would soon be fixed:

"At the moment, [British divers] are working to fix [the saw cable]. We think it will be fixed late today."

Repairs to the underwater saw were completed and work resumed early today. But what cannot be as easily smoothed over, however, are nagging concerns about the safety of the operation.

The mission to raise the Kursk began in mid-July and is designed to lift all but the sub's first compartment, which was heavily damaged in the unexplained blasts that are believed to have caused the "Kursk" to sink.

Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who was criticized for his slow response to the tragedy -- promised families of the victims that t he submarine would be raised to discover what caused it to sink and to give the dead crewmen inside a decent burial. Twelve bodies have already been recovered.

The salvage team has cut 26 holes in the sub's hull. The holes will be fitted with steel cables, each capable of carrying 900 tonnes. The plan is to use these cables to lift the sub to the surface and attach it to massive pontoons, after which it will be towed into the port of Roslyakovo, in the Murmansk region. There, it will be hoisted into dry dock and inspected for clues as to what caused the disaster. Any remaining bodies will also be removed.

The massive salvage effort is not without its critics. Many point to the high cost of the operation -- an estimated $70 million -- and the risks to the divers involved. They say the "Kursk" may still house live torpedoes and cruise missiles that could explode. And then there is the problem of the submarine's two nuclear reactors.

Vice-Admiral Mikhail Motsak of the Russian Navy says any torpedoes or missiles on board were more than likely destroyed in the explosions that sunk the sub. And ITAR-TASS quotes Captain Dygalo as saying that radiation levels in the area around the wrecked sub are normal, indicating that the nuclear reactors have not been damaged.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Dygalo emphasized that the salvage operation is quite safe and that every contingency has been considered:

"These kinds of operations are always very difficult. But the security aspect of the [rescue] operation has been studied very carefully, and I think that the risks are very little. Nobody wants to risk peoples' lives. For that reason, the operation is done according to very strong security measures."

But critics of the mission say the possible hazards are difficult for anyone to foresee. Aleksei Yablokov is president of Russia's Center for Environmental Policy. He fears that slicing off the bow of the sub could release radiation into the environment:

"A little nuclear pollution may take place after the sawing of the sub. This is the first risk. There are no guarantees that the pipes connected to the reactor are [still] intact after that powerful blast. It is possible that in the reactor's section, there is some radioactivity and the water [inside it] can flow to the environment."

Yablokov acknowledges that such a scenario represents only a small danger for the environment. But he says that the physical stresses placed on the sub during the raising could result in more serious problems.

"The second and more serious danger is that during the raising operation, the sub may bend and that the pins that [guarantee] the reactors are switched off may move. Then an uncontrolled atomic reaction may start. This means that the reactors may start working. Then we may have serious radioactive pollution."

Yablokov said such a scenario would result in an environmental disaster -- not so big as the Chornobyl disaster, he said, "But it wouldn't help the environment."

Despite the potential risks, however, it's clear the salvage operation is going ahead. Captain Dygalo of the Russian Navy tells RFE/RL that, even taking into account delays such as that caused by the broken saw, work is still on track to raise the submarine by the end of September. Bad winter weather in the Barents Sea could hamper salvage efforts if they are delayed any further.

Privately, Navy officials say the operation could drag on into October..