And now, the sub also rises

Russia this week begins a controversial recovery of the Kursk, a sunken nuclear sub.

Like a horror film that keeps generating sequels, the "Return of the Kursk" will be riveting Russians to their TV's this summer.

A hastily assembled international operation to raise the giant submarine - which sank under still-unexplained circumstances during war games in the Barents Sea last August - will begin site work this week.

If successful, the unprecedented $80 million effort will recover not just the wreck, but also the remains of many of the 118 crew members, bringing emotional closure for their families. It will also boost the credibility of President Vladimir Putin, who broke with Russian tradition to pledge that the vessel would be recovered, regardless of cost.

But experts warn that Moscow's aggressive timetable may have greatly heightened the dangers of a new accident. Workers will apply an untested technique to lift the 20,000-ton Kursk - with two unstable nuclear reactors and as many as nine unexploded torpedoes on board - amid notoriously treacherous Arctic water currents and weather conditions.

"The Kursk, and particularly its reactor compartment, is in an unknown state after a year of pressure and saltwater corrosion. No one can predict what the strains of hauling it up in unpredictable seas might do," says Yuly Gladkeyevich, an expert with the independent AVN military news agency.

In late May, the Kremlin dumped a consortium of three international salvage firms, because their engineers insisted the September deadline was too risky. "The companies would not compromise the safety of its crews and equipment, nor of the wreckage, its victims, or the environment in order to rush for this year's completion," said a statement issued by the consortium of Heerema, Smit, and Halliburton.

The Russian government engaged one of the firms, Smit International, and a Dutch heavy-lifting company, Mammoet, after they pledged to bring the Kursk up quickly. A team that includes British, Norwegian, Russian, and Dutch divers and support staff arrives this week to start working on the wreck.

In the first stage, a massive robot chainsaw will shear off the entire forward section - where the disaster occurred. It will be left on the seabed for possible recovery later by the Russian Navy.

Experts say cutting away the damaged bow is a hair-raising plan. "There is a big risk here," says Alexei Yablokov, Russia's most respected ecological activist and president of the independent Center for Environmental Policy. "The probability is quite high that some of the pipes and wiring that comprise the emergency-shutdown system of the reactor could be affected."

Despite the Navy's assertion that it will inspect and "cleanse" the wreckage before the robot saw is activated, other dangers remain. "No one is sure exactly how many torpedoes are still in the Kursk's fore section, or how the vibrations from the saw may cause them to shift," says Viktor Litovkin, military expert with the independent weekly newspaper Obshaya Gazeta.

One explanation for the Kremlin's haste could be a fear that if the wreck - which lies in relatively shallow international waters - is not removed, the US or another country might salvage it. Among other things, the Kursk had 24 super-secret Granit Cruise missiles and their launchers aboard.

But political pressure may be the main reason. "This is all being done to fulfill Putin's promise that the Kursk will be raised," says Mr. Gladkeyevich. "The president cannot stand the loss of credibility. The whole operation would be unnecessary otherwise."

And if anyone was hoping for an explanation of how the Russian Navy's most advanced - and reputedly unsinkable - atomic-powered attack sub was destroyed, they may be disappointed. "This operation is not designed to find the answers to what happened, as that would only raise too many embarrassing questions about the chronic neglect, incompetence, and unpreparedness that plagues our armed forces," says Mr. Litovkin.

International experts believe a torpedo mishap or missile test gone awry are the likliest causes. But Russian officials continue to speak about a foreign spy sub ramming the Kursk. Other theories include a collision with a World War II-era mine or sabotage by Chechen guerrillas.

The next phase of the recovery operation, set for September, poses a new set of risks. A huge pontoon fitted with 20 powerful winches will be deployed to haul the Kursk to the surface. "If the submarine should fall onto its side, the reactor's emergency systems could stop functioning," says Mr. Yablokov. "An uncontrolled atomic reaction cannot be ruled out."

If successfully raised, the Kursk will go to a naval dry dock beneath the pontoon - and never be seen up close by observers. "The secrecy regime will be observed in full," Igor Dygalo, spokesman for the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet told an online press conference. "This is a military operation, not a civilian one, and security will be a primary concern."

"The government is going to carefully control all information about this, so that any unpleasant facts can be edited out," says Gladkeyevich. "We don't know why the Kursk sank now, and we're not likely to find out even after they've brought it back."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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