- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

MOSCOW — Russia’s defense minister yesterday blamed the sinking of a derelict nuclear submarine on carelessness he described as characteristic of the country and ordered a temporary halt to the towing of decommissioned subs.

The announcement raised the prospect of further delays in efforts to dispose of more than 100 rotting ships and their reactors, which have been a concern to environmentalists.

The K-159 submarine sank Saturday in the Barents Sea as it was being towed to an Arctic scrap yard, where its reactors were to be removed and dismantled. Nine of the 10 sailors aboard died.

“There were definitely elements of this frivolous Russian reliance on chance, that everything will work out,” Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said from a ship monitoring search operations.

The sub went down in a storm, apparently after rough seas ripped off the pontoons that had been attached to it for towing.

Russian news reports cited unidentified Navy sources as suggesting the pontoons had been placed improperly and Mr. Ivanov said the submarine went to the bottom with its conning tower open.

“This confirms yet again the simple truth that all instructions and orders must be taken seriously,” he said.

Later, after meeting with surviving sailor Lt. Maxim Tsibulsky and families of the dead sailors, he said: “I have made a decision to ban the towing of such submarines to scrap yards in such a manner until further notice,” according to the Interfax news agency.

Mr. Ivanov also said the men aboard the K-159 were not to blame.

“There are no complaints against you … you were only a witness,” Mr. Ivanov said in a televised meeting with Lt. Tsibulsky, who lay in a Northern Fleet hospital bed appearing healthy but exhausted.

Environmentalists have suggested officials were playing down the danger of contamination in the fish-rich waters, but Mr. Ivanov said radiation levels were normal.

He said the submarine will be raised from the 780-foot seabed, but preparations could take several months.

Russia has decommissioned about 189 nuclear-powered submarines over the past 15 years, but officials say 126 of those still are at docks with nuclear fuel in their reactors, creating international concern about leaks and the possibility of nuclear materials being obtained by other nations or terrorists.

It will cost an estimated $3.9 billion to scrap all the subs, Russian officials say. Yet last year, the Russian government budgeted just $70 million for improving nuclear safety in the country as a whole.

Environmentalist Alexander Nikitin, a former Russian navy captain, said Saturday that the risk of a leak from the sunken sub was high, and he criticized the Navy for choosing the “cheapest and worst option” by not removing the reactors before towing the boat to the dismantling point.

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