MOSCOW (AP) Almost a year after it sank in the Arctic, killing all its 118 crewmen and dealing a sharp blow to Russias prestige, the Kursk nuclear submarine is again in the global spotlight as a costly and daring effort to raise it to the surface gets under way.
Russian officials say one goal of the salvage operation is to recover the Kursks two nuclear reactors, which havent leaked radiation so far but remain a potential threat. Another, unspoken motive is to demonstrate the governments strength, resolve and openness all absent in the days following the catastrophe.
One of our main problems in the last few years has been the lack of trust in the leadership, President Vladimir Putin told a news conference Wednesday. This trust can be restored only if we fulfill our promises.
After communications with the Kursk were lost during naval maneuvers on Aug. 12, 2000, the bewildered Navy command waited hours before launching a search, wasting precious time to save survivors trapped in the subs rear compartments.
The government refused offers of Western help and Russian mini-submarines spent several days in futile attempts to hook onto the submarines escape hatch until Moscow finally invited foreign divers who took just a few hours to open it.
Putin remained at the balmy seaside resort of Sochi throughout the crisis. Only after harsh media criticism of his absence did Putin fly to the Kursks home base to meet with the submariners relatives. He promised to raise the submarine to recover all the bodies.
The recovery effort, which began this week and is estimated to cost about $70 million, is unprecedented in naval history. Some submarines have been raised before, but none has been comparable to the giant Kursk.
No one has ever tried to recover an 18,000-ton submarine before, its a huge task, said Capt. Richard Sharpe, the former editor of Janes Fighting Ships, a widely recognized reference on the worlds navies.
Five other nuclear submarines sank before the Kursk two of them American and the three others Russian. All remain buried at depths of up to 16,000 feet because of the enormous costs involved in efforts to lift them. In contrast, the Kursk sank to just 357 feet.
Sharpe said the Russian Navy needs to raise the Kursk because its location in shallow waters in the middle of the Russian Northern Fleet exercise area makes it a potential collision hazard.
The last thing the Russian fleet needs is for another submarine to crash into it, said Sharpe, a former British nuclear submarine commander. For that reason alone, its got to be moved.
Russian Navy officials also say raising the Kursk could help shed light on the cause of the accident. Russian officials said the disaster was triggered by a practice torpedo, but they do not know if it was caused by an internal malfunction in the torpedo the theory favored by most outside experts or a collision.
Sharpe said the tightly sealed Kursks reactors pose no real danger to the salvage effort. They shut down automatically when the vessel sank, and regular monitoring has shown no radiation leak.
The dangers are much more the physical ones, of trying to maneuver the 18,000-ton weight of sunken submarine up way to the surface, he said.
The project, led by the Dutch firm Mammoet, envisages raising the Kursk using cables connected to 26 hydraulic jacks anchored to a giant barge. Mammoet says its technology allows precise control of every inch of lifting.
One previous submarine rescue operation, mounted in 1974 by Washington and involving the CIA and industrialist Howard Hughes, attempted to raise a Russian diesel sub that sank 750 miles northwest of Hawaii in 1968. The CIA later confirmed that the submarine split in two and that half of it slipped away as it was pulled to about 5,000 feet with a giant claw from the Glomar Explorer rescue ship.
Some of the Kursks torpedoes are believed to remain unexploded in the subs weapons bay. To avoid the danger of their detonation, the Kursks first compartment is to be cut off and left at the bottom of the Barents Sea. Navy officials say they will consider lifting it separately next year.
As the recovery started this week, engineers used an unmanned, remote-controlled vessel to measure radiation levels and dig out the buried first compartment. After the bow is cut off around Aug. 8, Russian and foreign divers will drill holes in the hull and attach steel cables for lifting the sub. That operation is tentatively set for Sept. 15 and is expected to last about eight hours.
Compared to the bungled rescue effort, when the Navy released contradictory and often false information and kept journalists away from the scene, the current operation is a show of transparency, with the Kremlin organizing excursions to the site and real-time reports on the effort on a new Web page.
By raising the submarine under close media scrutiny, the government is taking a bitter pill against the Soviet syndrome of lying, said Alexander Pikayev, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment.
On the Web:
Official information site, http://kursk.strana.ru/
Dutch company Web site, http://www.mammoet.com
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