Russian Nuke Sub Sinks, Killing 9

This is an undated photo of a Russian 1960's era November class nuclear attack submarine similar to the K-159 which sank in the Barents Sea on Saturday morning as it was being towed to a scrapyard, killing at least two of the 10-member crew, the Defense Ministry said. One sailor was rescued, the bodies of two dead crew members were found and the fate of seven others were unknown, the ministry said.
AP
An aged Russian nuclear submarine being towed to a scrapyard sank in a gale in the Barents Sea Saturday, and the defense minister said nine of the 10 crew aboard died in the accident.

The sub's sinking raised concerns of environmental damage and further dented the deteriorating navy's prestige.

The storm tore off pontoons attached to the K-159 submarine for its trip to the dismantling point, but Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also said the ship's conning tower had been left open. He fired the commander of the submarine divsion that included the K-159, news agencies reported.

The two nuclear reactors of the 40-year-old submarine have been shut down since it was decomissioned in 1989, and radiation levels remained normal after it sank about 3 nautical miles northwest of Kildin Island near the entrance to Kola Bay, Russian military officials said.

Navy deputy chief Adm. Viktor Kravchenko said one sailor was rescued and the bodies of two others were pulled out of the 50-degree waters. Ivanov said Saturday evening that "I'm forced to recognize ... that it is impossible to find any of the remaining seven crew members alive."

The Chief Military Prosecutor's Office said Navy officials were being charged with violating navigation rules and "it is already obvious that the Northern Fleet Command broke the law and didn't show enough resolution in carrying out rescue operations," the Interfax news agency reported.

Although the navy insisted that the K-159's nuclear reactors posed no environmental hazard, environmentalists quickly warned of a possible radiation leak that could contaminate the busy fishing area.

"The risks are very high," Alexander Nikitin, a retired Russian navy captain who heads the St.Petersburg branch of the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group, told The Associated Press.

Nikitin said that the uranium fuel, which was loaded into the submarine's reactors some 30 years ago, was far more radioactive and dangerous than a fresher load would be.

He harshly blamed the navy for moving the crumbling, leaky submarine to the scrapyard some 190 miles away from its base, saying that its nuclear reactors should have been removed prior to the journey.

"They have chosen the cheapest and the worst option," said Nikitin, whose report on nuclear risks posed by the Russian navy led to his arrest in 1996 and 11-month imprisonment on treason charges. He was acquitted in 1999.

The K-159 sank about 4 a.m. in waters 560 feet deep after four pontoons attached for the towing operation were ripped of the sub during a battering storm.

Retired Adm. Eduard Baltin recalled that the K-159 was already taking water when it made its last mission in 1983. He said on Echo of Moscow radio that the navy shouldn't have placed the crew on the submarine, saying that "it was like putting them in a barrel full of holes."

President Vladimir Putin was informed of the accident while on the island of Sardinia for a three-day meeting with Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. The sinking "testifies to how the sea demands discipline, it does not forgive any kind of blunder or mistake," Putin said while conducting Berlusconi on a tour of a Russian missile cruiser anchored off Sardinia.

The tour was apparently intended to boost the prestige of the Russian navy, badly hurt by the August 2000 sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine which killed all 118 men on board.

In contrast to the Kursk disaster, when the government issued scarce and conflicting information, the Defense Ministry quickly reported the K-159 accident. "Our military and political leadership has at least learned some lessons from the Kursk tragedy," retired Capt. Igor Kurdin, the head of the St.Petersburg-based Submariners' Club, said in a telephone interview.

The Kursk was raised from the Barents Sea floor in October 2001 by a Dutch consortium in an unprecedented salvage effort that cost the Russian government about $65 million. Ivanov said the K-159 also would be raised.

The condition of Russia's aging nuclear submarine fleet has long raised international concern. Russian officials said it will cost an estimated $3.9 billion to scrap over 100 mothballed nuclear submarines that await destruction. Yet last year, the Russian government budgeted just $70 million for improving nuclear safety in the country as a whole.

The K-159 entered service in 1963. A November-class submarine, it was intended for attacking enemy ships with conventional or low-yield nuclear torpedoes. "It was a workhorse of the Cold War," Kurdin said.

A submarine of the same type, the K-8, caught fire and sank in April 1970 in the Bay of Biscay during naval maneuvers, killing 52.