- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

MURMANSK, Russia Putting the gutted carcass of the recovered Russian submarine Kursk into dry dock was postponed last week to ensure that the delicate, complex effort doesn't disturb the vessel's nuclear reactors and powerful missiles.
Preparations for the docking began as scheduled on Thursday, when Dutch and Russian experts started attaching the two huge pontoons needed to hoist the submarine into dry dock at a ship-repair plant in Roslyakovo, near Murmansk.
However, the docking itself was put off until this week, said Northern Fleet spokesman Capt. Vladimir Navrotsky.
Fourteen months after the Kursk sank, its hulk was raised from the sea floor last Monday by the Dutch Mammoet-Smit International consortium in an unprecedented salvage operation. Lifted on 26 steel cables, it was clamped beneath a giant barge for the trip to the Roslyakovo ship-repair facility.
Capt. Navrotsky said the decision to put off the docking until this week was made at the request of the Dutch engineers, who said they needed to make more calculations and checks to ensure that the bulky combination of barge, submarine and pontoons smoothly enters the dock.
"There must be no rush," he said.
The 18,000-ton Kursk is one of the world's largest submarines, making the docking operation a difficult undertaking, since any sharp move could destabilize its nuclear reactors or its 22 supersonic Granit cruise missiles.
Lars Walder, a spokesman for the Dutch consortium, said the consortium has set Tuesday as a tentative date for the docking. "It's very precise work," Mr. Walder told the Associated Press. "We aren't trying to rush it, but we're not postponing it either."
Officials will keep constant watch over the radiation levels, using a stream of information from gauges installed on the Kursk's hull and other measuring devices on ships around the submarine and on shore.
A screen erected on a Roslyakovo street constantly displays radiation levels to assuage residents' fears.
After being raised from the Barents Sea floor, the battered Kursk was towed under the barge and reached the shipyard on Wednesday, where officials are to check its twin nuclear reactors, remove the bodies of its crew and begin the delicate task of dismantling its missiles.
The barge slowed dramatically as it moved along the narrow Kola Bay Wednesday in sunny but chilly weather. As it passed the Northern Fleet's main base in Severomorsk, residents thronged the embankment and navy ships wailed their sirens.
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.
Once it is in dry dock, officials will take out remains of the crew to prevent damaging contact with the air.
Capt. Navrotsky told reporters officials only expect to find 30 to 40 bodies, because remains of the others were likely blown to bits 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," he said.
At least 23 Kursk sailors survived the disaster 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 explosions 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 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, Adm. 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.
The navy plans to raise all or part of the bow next year.


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