Tatiana Bbateneva Izvestia, July 5, 2001, pp. 1, 3

Judging from statements by Sergei Nikonov, the Russian Navy canot conduct complicated salvage operations

In Aberdeen, Scotland, on July 4, Russian divers began the final phase of preparations for raising the Kursk submarine. The medical part of the operation will be supervised by Colonel Sergei Nikonov, Chief Medical Officer of the Russian Navy Diving Department. He gave an interview with the newspaper Izvestia’s journalists on the eve of his departure.

Sergei Nikonov:In comparison with last year’s Kursk operation, the present operation is more complicated from both a technical and professional point of view. The preparation of divers in the Naval Expeditionary Salvage Unit and the 40th research Institute has been completed successfully and I hope that they will be able to cope with their tasks.

Question: Russian divers showed their best qualities during that operation. However, many people think that those members of the Kursk crew who survived the wreck were not rescued because of bad decisions and the sluggishness of salvage services.

Sergei Nikonov:Russia does not have salvage services that are capable of coping with such difficult tasks. Previously, each fleet had its own divers, who were able to rescue seamen from submarines from a depth of 160 to 200 meters. The physiological readiness of divers lasts for about 40 days. Our system for training divers was based on the experience of several generations of divers, but that model was too expensive and became obsolete. New methods are now being used worldwide and these kinds of operations are being conducted by commercial companies. Foreign Navies hire these companies for diverse salvage operations. As far as the Kursk is concerned, the 23 seamen who survived the wreck died owing to a unique concourse of circumstances. The officers died before salvage services started the operation, although rescuers arrived at the accident site ahead of schedule. However, this is my personal point of view.

Question: It is know that the Russian salvage service has a three-century history…

Sergei Nikonov:Yes, the first salvage operation was conducted in 1720, organized by Peter the Great. The modern salvage service was created after World War II, at the same time as the oceanic fleet. Serious research in this sphere was conducted during the 1950s when we assumed the leading position in rescuing people from sunken vessels. We had the most up-to-date technology and the largest salvage fleet, which allowed the Soviet Navy to conduct unique salvage operations.

Question: Reports about such operations were classified. Could you talk about some of them?

Sergei Nikonov:The salvage service managed to rescue the crew of a sunken submarine in 1981. The pressure in the submarine’s compartments was equal to that outside, but the lives of servicemen who spend three days in that hell were saved. As a result of that operation, six members of the crew were moved to a salvage submarine. This was the first such rescue in the world. In addition, over 100 seamen were rescued from a sunken submarine in 1983.

Question: Does anyone need the unique technology developed in Russia?

Sergei Nikonov: Before the 1980s, Soviet divers worked in the following way: 20 to 30 minutes on the seabed followed by approximately 20 hours in a decompression chamber. New methods made it possible to work four to six hours at a depth of up to 300 meters. Divers could live in a special diving barocomplex under pressure equal to that outside for a month. As a result, they had to undergo decompression just once. This shows that the level of Soviet hyperbaric physiology and medicine was very high.

Question: As far as I know, Russian divers worked at a depth of 500 meters.

Sergei Nikonov:The main goal of the experiments conducted by the 40th Research Institute was to solve concrete tasks, not to break records. The results of those experiments have not been used, but the scientific solutions found were impressive. Russia holds a leading position concerning such parameters as the speed of compression and the duration of underwater work. Two scientists have become Heroes of the Soviet Union for that research.

Question: Divers’ work is linked with serious health risks. Are these risks analyzed?

Sergei Nikonov:The pension age of those who work in difficult circumstances is 50 years. As a rule, the majority of divers resign before they are 40, although do not have decompression disease. Recent investigations have proved that decompression cannot reach 100%. Divers’ bodies become saturated with rare gases and they have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to prevent decompression disease. However, gas bubbles remain in their bodies.

Question: Do you mean that divers’ health is harmed even if they have no complaints?

Sergei Nikonov:These bubbles harm the cardiovascular system. For instance they can “hit” one point of the internal membrane of the heart. As a result the membrane becomes inflamed – this disease is called endocarditis. The problem is that no one wants to acknowledge that this disease is caused by professional activities. We know that each submergence harms divers’ health, which is why professionals need a system of medical-social protection.

Question: Do physicians who examine divers need special skills?

Sergei Nikonov:There is a profession in the Russian Armed Forces – a special physiology. These specialists will examine a healthy man under specific conditions. At the same time, the Health Ministry does not have diving medicine as such. As a result, we do not have a system for training physicians. Military physiologists have to imitate submergence in a pressure chamber twice a week and dive to the seabed regularly. However, no one registers these submergences, and they have no privileges. In addition, military physicians cannot find jobs after leaving the Armed Forces. A profession without civil prospects does not attract graduates from military medical institutes.

Question: Does this mean that the Army lacks such physicians? What does the Main Defense Ministry Military-Medical Department (MMMD) do in this regard?

Sergei Nikonov:The MMMD has reformed the military-medical education system in order to bring it in compliance with the state standards. However, neither special physiology, nor diving medicine have [place in this system. As a result the quality of the medical service is decreasing.

Question: What are the consequences of underwater salvage operations without reliable medical support?

Sergei Nikonov:Few enthusiasts have remained in hyperbaric medicine. Very soon no one will be able to make competent decisions linked with rescuing people. The number of divers is increasing, fully-fledged pneumatic work has been resumed, and there are plenty of amateur divers… The rate of specific diseases is increasing. The absence of specialists and a system of urgent medical aid and rehabilitation will cause an epidemic of “underwater” diseases such decompression disease, barotraumas, and more.