Giant barge towing remains of Kursk nuclear submarine arrives at Russian port

Wednesday, October 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MURMANSK, Russia (AP) _ The battered Kursk submarine reached a Russian shipyard on Wednesday where officials will check its twin nuclear reactors, remove the bodies of its crew and begin the delicate task of dismantling its deadly missiles.

The Kursk, which was lifted from the Barents Sea floor Monday by a Dutch consortium, was hauled by a huge barge to a dock at Roslyakovo ship repair plant near Murmansk.

The barge slowed dramatically as it moved along the narrow Kola Bay on Wednesday in sunny but chilly weather. When it passed the Northern Fleet's main base in Severomorsk, residents thronged the embankment and navy ships wailed their sirens.

``After anchoring, we immediately will start detailed radiation checks,'' said Russian Northern Fleet spokesman Vladimir Navrotsky.

The Kursk's two 190-megawatt nuclear reactors and missile arsenal have been a primary concern since the submarine sank Aug. 12, 2000, killing its entire 118-man crew.

It will take at least three days to pull the Kursk into the dock with the help of huge pontoons, then another five days to remove the barge and the pontoons and dry up the dock, Navrotsky said.

Once it is in dry dock, officials will take out remains of the crew to prevent damaging contact with the air.

Navrotsky said officials only hope to find 30-40 bodies, because remains of the others were likely blown to dust by the powerful explosions that sank the submarine.

He said inspecting the submarine could be a severe shock even for the navy's seasoned forensic experts.

``We have picked the strongest men for the job, but it's hard to say whether they will be able to endure the mess inside,'' Navrotsky said.

At least 23 Kursk sailors survived the crash for hours in the stern compartments, according to letters found when divers entered the vessel last fall and recovered 12 bodies.

Officials have said the reactors were safely shut down when the disaster occurred and leaked no radiation. But the Russian government cited the risk of a radiation leak in the rich fishing grounds of the Barents Sea as a key reason for the $65 million operation to lift the Kursk.

Measurements throughout the lifting and towing have shown no trace of leaked radiation, said the Russian Northern Fleet commander, Adm. Vyacheslav Popov.

Concern about a possible radiation leak prompted Roslyakovo officials to work out contingency evacuation plans and beef up stocks of iodine.

Another reason for concern was the condition of the Kursk's 22 Granit cruise missiles, which are designed to sink aircraft carriers by slamming them with a ton of explosives.

If it proves impossible to lift missiles out of their containers, the navy is prepared to cut them out of the Kursk's hull, Popov said.

He didn't say when the missiles would be removed, but estimated that it would take at least a year to dismantle the submarine along with its nuclear reactors and missiles.

Speaking on Russian television late Tuesday, Popov bristled with anger when asked when camera crews would be allowed close to the wreck. ``For sailors, a sunken ship is like a dead body and showing a disfigured wreck is morally wrong,'' he snapped.

The government hopes to determine the cause of the Kursk's sinking. But skeptics say key clues to the cause of the disaster are in the Kursk's mangled bow, which was sawed off and left on the seabed out of fear it could destabilize the lifting. The navy plans to raise all or part of the bow next year.