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Russian nuclear submarine malfunctions in Arctic
August 15, 2000
MOSCOW (AP) - A Russian nuclear submarine malfunctioned while on operations above the Arctic Circle, and was trapped Monday on the ocean bottom with more than 100 crew members aboard, a navy spokesman said.
The Oscar-class submarine was not carrying any nuclear weapons and there was no immediate danger of radiation leaks or an explosion, said Igor Dygalo, head of the navy press service. The navy declined to say what went wrong and forced the submarine to the ocean floor Sunday in the Barents Sea, describing it only as a "malfunction."
The vessel's two nuclear reactors had been shut down, he said.
The submarine could not move, but it was not clear why, said Igor Babenko, a spokesman for the Northern Fleet, to which the submarine belongs.
"Certainly, the situation is serious," he said.
NTV television news, citing unnamed sources, reported that water gushed through the submarine's torpedo tubes during a firing exercise and flooded the front of the vessel. The submarine was trapped about 100 meters (yards) below the surface, the network said.
Rescue ships were at the scene, trying to assist the stricken submarine, which was in radio contact with surface vessels, officials said.
Norway, which has a scientific vessel in the region, said the submarine was lying in about 150 meters (yards) of water off Russia's Kola Peninsula. Foreign Ministry spokesman Karsten Klepsvik said there was no sign of a radiation leak.
The Barents Sea is in arctic waters bordering the northwest coast of Russia and the northern tip of Norway.
In an emergency, a submarine would surface if at all possible. But Dygalo said the vessel was forced to descend to the ocean floor, indicating that the crew had lost control.
Vladimir Gundarov, a submarine specialist at Red Star, the official daily newspaper of the Russian military, said rescuing people from a submarine was very difficult and there was no set procedure. The Russian navy does not have advanced submarine rescue vessels, according to standard naval reference works.
"The situation is extremely negative," he said.
The crew may be able to use rescue capsules, but in the worse case would have to try escape by swimming out through the torpedo tubes, he said.
"It is extremely risky, but they are all trained to do this," he said.
Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, was directing the rescue operation, the Interfax news agency reported.
The Russian navy has been conducting major fall exercises in the Barents and the submarine had been participating, Dygalo said. The exercises were the biggest in several years.
The submarine, named Kursk, was built in 1994 and went into service in 1995, making it one of the newest vessels in the Russian navy. It is a nuclear strategic submarine that can carry up to 24 nuclear surface-to-surface missiles, used mainly in an anti-ship role.
The submarine was carrying a full crew, navy officials said. The Kursk carries a crew of 107 personnel and weighs some 14,000 tons, according to Jane's Fighting Ships, an authoritative guide to warships.
Russian nuclear submarines have been involved in a string of accidents in recent decades.
In the last major accident involving one of Moscow's nuclear submarines, the Komsomolets sank in April 1989 after catching fire 210 miles (350 kilometers) north of Norway. Forty-two of the 69 Soviet sailors aboard died in the accident.
The Russian military, including the navy, is in shambles, with no regular maintenance of weapons and other equipment. Many warships do not receive the regular servicing needed to keep them seaworthy, according to navy officers and veterans.
The Izvestia newspaper reported recently that, according to the most conservative estimate, 507 submarine crew members have died during the 40-year history of Russian nuclear submarines.