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Engineers Convinced No Radiation Danger from Kursk Salvage - 2001-07-28

Russian officials and members of a Dutch engineering consortium say they plan to raise the sunken Russian submarine Kursk from the bottom of the Barents Sea by mid-September - but only if the weather allows them to do so. Nuclear engineers say they are convinced there is no possibility of radiation leaking during the complex lifting operation, even if an accident disrupts the salvage effort.

The Kursk Foundation, a private entity that is assisting the Russian government in mobilizing support for efforts to raise the Kursk from the seabed, says an analysis of the risks involved in the operation indicates that there is minimal danger of radiation leakage from the lifting.

The 18,000-ton Kursk, a nuclear submarine armed with 22 cruise missiles carrying conventional warheads, was ripped by two explosions nearly one year ago and crashed into the sea floor, killing all 118 people on board.

The foundation's co-chairman, former Dutch Defense Minister Wim van Eekelen, told reporters in Brussels that, if the sub were left at its present location in 100 meters of water, the danger would be much greater. Mr. Van Eekelen says a radiation leak at that depth is probable and would cause unacceptable consequences.

"With this lifting exercise, there is a signal to the world that, when an accident of this kind happens, it has to be cleared up," he said. "It has to be cleared up in human terms, but also in environmental terms."

The plan is to raise the Kursk on steel cables that divers are drilling in the submarine's hull. The cables will be attached to 26 hydraulic lifts anchored to a giant barge. Once the sub is lifted, it will be towed to the Arctic port of Murmansk. The main fears, especially among environmentalists, are that the cables could break, sending the Kursk crashing back to the bottom of the sea.

Some experts have expressed concern about the ability of the Kursk's two nuclear reactors to withstand such shocks. But independent nuclear engineering experts say all possible accidents have been assessed and that the reactors will remain safe.

The operation is being financed by the Russian government at cost of $130 million. One half of that amount is for the lifting and towing operation that is being conducted by the Dutch firms Mamoet and Smit International.

The president of Mamoet, Frans van Seumeren, says his biggest concern is the weather and choppy seas. "The biggest problem will be the weather, of course, because you don't know what the weather will do," he said.

Mr. Van Seumeren says the lifting operation will not begin until there is a favorable long-term forecast.

The bow of the damaged sub will be sawed off and left on the seabed. But the Russian navy has plans to raise it next year. Admiral Mikhail Barskov, deputy commander of the Russian navy, says there are no explosives in the bow.

Mr. Van Eekelen, the co-chairman of the Kursk Foundation, says that the risk analysis carried out by Russian and international nuclear safety experts and engineers has convinced him that the project can be given the green light.

"We have reached the conclusion that the operation is technically sound as it is planned and proceeding and that the risks involved are acceptable both to personnel and to the environment," he said.

Divers are now cutting the holes in the submarine's hull that will eventually be used to hoist it to the surface.