THE COST OF THE PRESIDENT’S WORD

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Marat Khairullin, Dmitry Khrupnov Novye Izvestia, July 24, 2001, pp. 1, 4

The military doesn’t know what to do with the nuclear fuel and cruise missiles from the Kursk submarine – even if the salvage operation is a success. The conclusion of independent specialists and journalists is very harsh: the operation has been prepared hastily, and the risks exceed all reasonable limits

A PR move involving a trip by over a hundred journalists to the site of the Kursk disaster has failed. The Kremlin’s political consultants made a mistake – the leading foreign newspapers and magazines are criticizing Russia’s operation in the Barents Sea. The conclusion of independent specialists and journalists is very harsh: the operation has been prepared hastily, and the risks exceed all reasonable limits.

According to our sources, residents of the Kola Peninsula are panic-stricken. They fear the arrival of the Kursk submarine at Roslyakovo, where the submarine is to be dismantled. Official representatives of the Northern Fleet call this phenomenon “the Chernobyl syndrome”.

But the people’s fears are well-founded. No one knows what is going on in the reactor compartment of the sunken submarine. The problem is that the reactor switched off at the peak of the emergency situation on board the submarine (during the first or second explosion, which destroyed partitions between three bow compartments). It is not clear what happened to the reactor in that situation. This is the main reason why the reactor must be dismantled.

The main danger is evident – the active zone of the Kursk’s reactor is “hot”. In these circumstances, the risk of so-called thermal explosion is very high. The opinion of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which investigated this situation, is very definite: any emergency situation in the shipyard would have disastrous consequences.

All this shows that those who say the Kursk is a “sunken Chernobyl” are right. The consequences of radioactive contamination caused by a thermal explosion would be horrendous. We have already written about the sorry technical and financial plight of the shipyards which will dismantle the Kursk.

It should be noted that the Northern Fleet’s shipyards once dismantled or repaired ten to 12 nuclear submarines a year. Now this figure fluctuates between one to three submarines. For instance, this year only one obsolete submarine has been dismantled at these shipyards. In other words, these enterprises are dead.

If the military does manage to raise the submarine and tow it to Roslyakovo, it will face another major problem: where will the Navy bury the nuclear fuel from the submarine? The trouble is that the Northern Fleet’s nuclear waste disposal sites are in an unsatisfactory condition. In some places, like Andreeva Guba, nuclear fuel is stored in the open air in broken containers.

There are hundreds of such places on the Kola Peninsula. It should be noted that the Northern Fleet has 88 obsolete submarines which need to be dismantled, and over 50 of them still contain nuclear fuel. This figure will increase to 130 by 2003.

The Northern Fleet needs about $1 billion in order to safely dispose of this fuel. In addition, the plant for reprocessing liquid nuclear fuel isn’t operating. The Murmansk Shipping enterprise has the equipment, but the cost of reprocessing is very high. Civilian companies are ready to take the Kursk’s nuclear fuel on board the Imandra technological vessel. However, it’s not so easy. Murmansk Shipping has two other ships loaded with nuclear waste – the Lepse and the Lotta.

The plight of the Lepse arouses anxiety, because the ship contains so-called defective nuclear waste (which cannot be reprocessed). No one knows what to do with this waste. In addition, the Lepse is overloaded.

Nuclear waste stored on board the Lotta cannot be reprocessed, for a different reason. In other words, the Russian nuclear fleet has two vessels loaded with spent nuclear fuel which cannot be reprocessed. It is very likely that the fuel from the Kursk submarine will prove to be defective too.

In addition to nuclear fuel, the Kursk will create many other problems. The torpedo room of the sunken submarine contained about 10 tons of TNT. According to Norwegian analysts, the explosion on the Kursk was equivalent to two tons of TNT, with eight tons remaining on board. However, there is another minor detail involved. The submarine is equipped with at least 22 cruise missiles. They are installed between the inner and outer hulls, to which 26 wire ropes will be fastened. Worst of all, the missiles might be dislodged from their compartments.

The problem of dismantling these missiles will become very relevant after the submarine is towed into dock. According to the Murmansk conversion enterprises, each missile contains about 500 kilograms of TNT. No one knows what will happen if one of these missiles explodes. It should be noted that there are many other unanswered questions linked with scrapping the submarine. In May, three international organizations working on the salvage operation plan asked the Russian government to postpone the operation to 2002. The Kremlin refused, and the Mayo ship has started work in July.

The fact that precautions were discussed after the operation started shows that the operation has been prepared in a hurry. Murmansk Governor Yury Yevdokimov addressed the Rubin design bureau in early July, demanding to see a copy of the safety precautions plan. He is still waiting for a reply.

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