- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Russia's leading environmental activist warned that the doomed Kursk nuclear submarine poses a major risk of a radiation leak in the Barents Sea, and said his country lacks the resources to salvage the vessel on its own.
Activist Aleksandr Nikitin, a nuclear engineer and former Russian naval officer facing treason charges in Moscow over his environmental exposes, made the prediction at a briefing here as Russian officials confirmed the grim news yesterday morning that all 118 crewmen aboard the 500-foot attack submarine had perished.
"Our worst expectations are confirmed," Mikhail Motsak, Russia's naval chief of staff, told reporters in Murmansk yesterday. "All sections of the sub are totally flooded and not a single member of the crew remains alive."
Even the confirmation of the deaths provided a fresh humiliation to Russia's military and the government of President Vladimir Putin, for which the days after the explosion that rocked the Kursk Aug. 12 have been an unrelieved public-relations disaster.
Norwegian divers, called in belatedly by Russian officials to help in the rescue effort, were able to break through a rear escape hatch in 36 hours something Russian rescue teams had been unable to do in more than a week.
Mr. Nikitin, who incurred the government's wrath for his investigative reports on the nuclear risks posed by Russia's aging nuclear submarine fleet, said he believed the Kursk's reactors were shut down as the explosion rocked the vessel.
But the still-hot cores of the two reactors and the corrosive effect of the frigid sea water flooding the vessel make it likely that the protective barriers encasing the reactors won't hold much longer than a month, he maintained.
"These reactors aren't the size of a power plant such as Chernobyl, but you would be looking at significant danger here nonetheless," Mr. Nikitin said at a briefing organized by the American Chemical Society.
Many U.S. military experts, however, say the Kursk's reactors may remain safe for far longer, citing U.S. and Russian submarine losses where no radiation leaks have been detected even decades after they were lost.
"It really all depends on what damage occurred to the systems at the time of the accident, which is something we can't really know at this time," said A.D. Baker II, a U.S. naval expert and editor of "Combat Fleets of the World."
"In past incidents of this kind, even in much deeper water than the Kursk, the systems have shut down and no major leaks have been detected," he said.
Norwegian divers yesterday said they had not detected any radioactive leaks so far from the Kursk, which is lying on the seabed off the coast of Norway in about 350 feet of water.
The divers reported that even the sub's rear compartments had been flooded with water, ending any chances that survivors could have fled from the explosion that destroyed the Kursk's forward sections.
"There is no hope for survivors. It has been determined it is time to terminate the rescue operation," said Lt. Col. John Espen Lien, a spokesman for the Norwegian armed forces.
But Russia still faces a massive technical task in either salvaging the sub or encasing its two nuclear reactors in an undersea "sarcophagus" to guard against future nuclear leaks.
And Mr. Putin and his government face domestic and international questions over their handling of the crisis, from the inconsistent early response to the accident, to the delays in seeking international help, to the president's own refusal to break off his Black Sea vacation to direct the rescue efforts.
Mr. Nikitin blamed Mr. Putin for not being more active in the early days of the crisis, saying the "Russian military mentality" all but forbade seeking international help in the rescue effort without the president's approval.
In a live televised address from the deck of a cruiser in the Barents Sea, fleet commander Adm. Vyacheslav Popov yesterday asked for forgiveness for not rescuing the sailors.
"We lost the best submarine crew in the Northern Fleet," Adm. Popov said, his voice quivering with emotion. "Forgive the children. Forgive your sons. And forgive me for not bringing back your boys."
Speaking on Russia's state-controlled ORT television network yesterday, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev conceded that the rescue operation may have been botched, blaming in part recent budget cuts that left the navy short of divers and sophisticated rescue vessels.
Ilya Klebanov, Russia's deputy prime minister, said yesterday the country would seek international help in recovering the victims' bodies and raising the sub from the sea floor.
"It will be an international effort," Mr. Klebanov told reporters yesterday. "No one can do it alone."
The Russian press, opposition leaders in parliament, and the families of the sailors gathered in Murmansk were all harshly critical of the government's actions the past 10 days.
"They have killed the boys, that's all," said Yekaterina Dyachkova, a retiree in Murmansk, headquarters of the Northern Fleet, struggling to hold back tears. "The [navy] should have called for help immediately, but they waited for so many days."
Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the opposition Union of Right Forces party in the State Duma, said Mr. Putin's decision to stay at his Black Sea vacation cabin during the first week of the crisis was "amoral." His party and the liberal Yabloko faction called for an independent parliamentary inquiry into the disaster.
A poll of 500 Muscovites, conducted over the weekend, found that more than two-thirds disapproved of the government's tardy appeal for international aid, with only 17 percent supporting the government.
Mr. Putin remains personally popular, but fully 28 percent of those polled said they had a lower opinion of him because of the Kursk disaster. Asked who bore the most blame, 35 percent blamed the military leadership, 23 percent blamed Mr. Putin, and just 9 percent blamed the sub's commander.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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