Russians face a tough choice over salvage of submarine

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The Independent Online

The Russian government faces a stark choice for dealing with the wreck of the Kursk: leave it as a tomb for the 118 sailors, or try to salvage it. Neither is attractive, although some senior officers say they intend to raise the submarine.

The Russian government faces a stark choice for dealing with the wreck of the Kursk: leave it as a tomb for the 118 sailors, or try to salvage it. Neither is attractive, although some senior officers say they intend to raise the submarine.

Leaving it untouched might seem the easiest way out, but it would not satisfy the families of the sailors who want evidence that their loved ones are not alive before abandoning it. Leaving the submarine would also risk the massive leakage of the radioactivity from its nuclear reactors.

"It's not clear whether the crew were able to flood the reactor chamber before they hit the sea-bed," said John Large, an independent nuclear consultant who has analysed other nuclear submarine accidents, including the sinking in 1989 of the Kosmolets, a Soviet-era submarine, in the Barents Sea not far from the Kursk. "If they had time, then letting water into the reactor chamber would let it cool, and keep it contained for a very long time.

"If not, then without power to circulate it, the water that cools the reactor core will superheat in a few days. It will be vented out - and once that goes, the reactor core will start to break up."

The result would not be a nuclear explosion, but the piecemeal release through external vents of the reactor fuel itself, which poses a massive danger to human and animal health. With the Barents Sea providing a key site for fish spawning, particularly cod, the effects could last years.For those reasons, and because the Kursk is lying only 350ft underwater, salvage seems the option. But that is not simple.

In 1975, the US Navy tried to hoist a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific. Halfway up, it broke apart and dropped to the bottom. If this happened with the Kursk, the environmental threat would be enormous. Russia has ignored the need for salvage for years, because its submarines have sunk in deep water, making recovery immensely difficult. The Kosmolets, which lies at a depth of 1,685 metres, was sealed in 1996 - making it safe, the Russians said, for 20 years.

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