Russian sub saved from brink of meltdown

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The Independent Online

Associated Press

Moscow - Power struggles have taken on a dangerous meaning in the far north, where heavily armed sailors forced the electric company to restore power to a nuclear submarine base in danger of overheating.

The local power authority, Kolenergo, had issued orders on Wednesday to cut power to Russia's northern fleet, which owes it 20bn roubles (pounds 2.8m). But the power cut left several ageing submarines without outside power, news reports said. The on-board cooling system on one failed and its reactors threatened to overheat.

Sailors in bullet-proof vests entered two substations on Thursday to force the duty engineers at gunpoint to switch on the electricity. The fleet then took over all the substations serving its nuclear installations on the Kola Peninsula.

The navy hotly denied any danger of a nuclear accident. But a fleet spokesman, Vladimir Kondriyanenko, said yesterday that "switching off the power for even a few minutes can cause an emergency", and added: "It's true the fleet owes the company a lot of money. But almost every state- run organisation has some debts."

The military newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), ran an outraged story yesterday saying Russia's strategic forces are so desperate for cash that they hire out troops for menial work like potato-picking. As a result, it said, some nuclear missile sites are so short-handed that crews often spend 18 days at a stretch at their underground posts instead of nine.

A spokesman for Kolenergo, Viktor Krivtsov, said the company sent a written protest to the fleet command. "The fact that military people can come to our premises and dictate their terms at gunpoint causes great anxiety," he said. "They'll still have to pay for electricity."

This was just the latest in a series of incidents on the Kola Peninsula, which lies above the Arctic Circle on Russia's borders with Finland and Norway.Among the more spectacular were power cuts to a base used for space launches and to the central command of the Strategic Rocket Forces, which control Russia's intercontinental ballistic missiles.

State electric companies even cut power to a flight control centre in southern Russia last year while dozens of planes, including President Boris Yeltsin's, were in the air.

The military has lobbied without success for a ban on power cuts to strategic installations. These power struggles are a reflection of huge cuts in defence spending since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.