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Kursk recovery operation carries risk of atomic disaster
By Francis Wheen in Murmansk
Along the bay from the main naval shipyard at Murmansk is a huge, specially constructed pontoon known as The Giant. If all goes according to plan, by mid-September this monster will have hauled the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk up from the depths of the Barents Sea, where it sank last August with 118 crewmen.
Radiation checks of the area were under way on Monday night, and a team of British, Norwegian and Russian divers were expected to begin work this weekend, 90 metres below the Arctic waves.
Their first task is to saw off the submarine's badly damaged bow, which is to remain on the ocean floor, and cut 26 holes in the main hull. Lifting cables, each capable of carrying 900 tonnes, will then be lowered from the pontoon and secured in the holes with steel plugs.
The Kursk will then be towed into the port of Murmansk and hoisted into a dry dock to yield up its corpses. But we are unlikely to learn why disaster struck this supposedly unsinkable submarine.
"The secrecy regime will be observed in full," a spokesman for the Northern Fleet said.
"This is a military operation, not a civilian one, and security will be a prime concern."
It is also an operation fraught with danger. There are 18 torpedoes and 24 cruise missiles packed into the bow end: what if they are disturbed by vibrations from the massive robotic chain saw? The sub carries two unstable nuclear reactors: what if it falls on its side while being winched to the surface?
The president of Russia's Centre for Environmental Policy, Mr Alexei Yablokov, has warned that "the reactors' emergency systems could stop functioning. An uncontrolled atomic reaction cannot be ruled out."
His misgivings are shared by Norway, whose trawlers fish in the area where the Kursk lies, and by the three international salvage firms that were originally hired to retrieve the wreck.
In May they asked Russia to postpone the work until next year, to allow more time for safety preparations. Moscow promptly sacked the consortium and hired two Dutch companies, Smit International and Mammoet, which were willing to start at once.
Why the haste? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that President Vladimir Putin hopes to redeem his reputation from the battering it suffered when the sub sank. While his grief-stricken citizens gazed at their television screens, desperate for any sign that the sailors might be alive, Mr Putin continued to improve his suntan at a Black Sea resort for almost a week before flying to Murmansk and offering belated condolences.
To make up for his earlier nonchalance, he pledged to raise the Kursk and its crew as soon as weather permitted, regardless of cost. However, one leading journalist declared on television this month that the money invested in recovering the Kursk - estimated at $A165 million - would be better spent on compensating the victims' families.
Unless there is a nuclear accident the Kremlin may yet turn the event into a PR triumph.
Regional officials hope that at least a few visiting journalists will ask a question that has hardly been mentioned in the past year: if the Russian Navy's most advanced atomic-powered attack submarine was not immune from disaster, how safe are its more primitive predecessors?
In this Arctic peninsula, which includes the gigantic Kola power station, there are no fewer than 200 nuclear reactors - some of them still aboard the 100 decommissioned submarines that are laid up awaiting the removal of their spent nuclear fuel. Only eight will be dismantled this year, and the figure is unlikely to rise by much until extra money can be found.
Some locals call the submarines "floating Chernobyls". The director of the Nerpa shipyard, Mr Pavel Steblin, prefers a different analogy. "With each of these subs we're talking about 200 Hiroshimas," he said. "And then there's the danger of radioactive waste leakage, which could turn into an ecological disaster. If a tragedy occurs here, God forbid, the whole world will be affected."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), July 17, 2001
Divers Begin Cutting Hull of Kursk
MOSCOW - Divers on Sunday began cutting an opening in the hull of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk, preparation for raising the vessel in September, Russian news media said. Divers working from the Norwegian support ship Mayo cut into the hull's fifth compartment from the front, the Interfax news agency and television reports said. Later, they will attach cables to lift the submarine.
The Kursk sank in 357 feet of water on Aug. 12 during a training exercise in the Barents Sea off northern Russia, killing all 118 crew members.
The international operation for salvaging the submarine began this week, as engineers used a remote-controlled submersible to measure radiation levels.
The divers have marked places where holes will be cut for steel cables to be attached. Twenty-six hydraulic lifts anchored to a giant pontoon will lift the submarine, and the pontoon will then be towed to the northern port city of Murmansk.
The submarine's first compartment was mangled in the explosion that sank the Kursk, and authorities fear it could contain unexploded torpedoes. It is to be cut off and left at the bottom of the Barents Sea when the submarine is raised.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 22, 2001.