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August 17, 2000
MOSCOW (AP) - Rescuers in an underwater escape capsule inched through swirling sand and strong currents Wednesday, fighting to reach a crippled Russian nuclear submarine on the sea bottom with 116 sailors trapped inside.
Attempts to latch on to one of the submarine's cargo hatches were being frustrated because the current was rocking the rescue capsule, making it difficult to steer, said navy Capt. Igor Babenko. Conditions on the sea floor were very bad with rescuers able to see just a few centimeters (inches) through the muddy water even though they had searchlights, he said.
"Sand and silt envelop the capsule causing zero visibility," said a navy officer, who declined to be named.
A rescue capsule was almost lost during the operation because of the strong currents and bad weather, said navy spokesman Igor Dygalo, who gave no details. The rescue work was very dangerous, he said.
The navy was determined to continue the rescue effort, but the weather in the Barents Sea was deteriorating Wednesday afternoon with high winds and waves buffeting rescue ships, Babenko said. About 20 ships were taking part in the operation.
Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said Wednesday there was no sign of life aboard the submarine, but that this did not mean that there were no survivors.
President Vladimir Putin said the situation was critical, and everything was being done to try to reach the Kursk.
Navy officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the Kursk went missing Saturday, despite official statements it was lost Sunday. The alarm was sounded after the Kursk failed to make a scheduled radio contact Saturday and it was found Sunday, said the officials, who asked not to be named.
A U.S. Navy submarine monitoring Russian naval exercises in the area heard an explosion Saturday that appeared linked to the Kursk, U.S. officials said in Washington on Tuesday.
The latest rescue attempt involved a larger, more powerful capsule called the Bester, and it was hoped it would be able to better handle the swift currents on the sea floor, officials said.
A smaller rescue capsule that tried four times during the night to reach the submarine was forced back to the surface after running out of oxygen, navy officials said. Its batteries were being recharged and the two capsules would work in turns, they said.
"We always hope for success," said navy spokesman Dygalo. "But as our work over night showed, we discovered several negative factors."
The navy has had no communication with the submarine since it sunk during the weekend and officials said they had no idea about conditions inside the Kursk. But the navy insisted that at least some of the crew was still alive.
The head of the navy, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, said Wednesday he was more confident about the chances of success and said rescue operations would continued until at least Friday.
"Now I am feeling more confidence that the operation to rescue the Kursk's crew will yield a result," he told the ITAR-Tass news agency.
But Kuroyedov said nothing had been heard from inside the Kursk despite earlier reports of sounds.
"It is necessary to take account of the psychology of submariners - when they know that rescue capsules are hovering above them, they keep silent," he was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass.
Kuroyedov said earlier that the situation was "extremely grave," with the crew expected to run out of oxygen Friday. Navy officials said water appeared to be leaking into the submarine.
The submarine suffered extensive damage after an explosion in the torpedo compartment at the front of the vessel, but the cause was not clear, the navy said. The submarine's conning tower was damaged and protective covers of two missile tubes on the vessel's right side were missing, it said.
Even if the capsules successfully dock with the sub and sailors can enter it and find survivors, the craft can hold only 20 people at a time and officials say bringing it to the surface could take up to seven hours, a slow rise required to prevent the potentially crippling or fatal decompression sickness.
Rescuers could also try to raise the submarine using giant pontoons, Kuroyedov said - a seemingly impossible prospect because the flooded craft weighs some 20,000 tons. Another proposal called for raising the submarine to a vertical position so part of it protruded from the water.
Russia refused offers from the United States and Britain to send trained rescue personnel and equipment even though the Russian navy lacks sophisticated rescue gear. Navy spokesman Dygalo said coordinating the rescue with other countries would take too much time and "we cannot afford to waste it."
Officials said the Kursk's two nuclear reactors had been switched off and it was not carrying nuclear weapons.
Russian nuclear submarines have been involved in a string of accidents in recent decades. The Navy, like the rest of the Russian military, is desperately short of money and performs almost no maintenance on its ships.
The Russian nuclear submarine trapped in the Arctic wouldn't be the first radiation risk on the ocean floor. But experts fear it could be the worst because it rests in shallow waters.
Environmentalists emphasized that the immediate radiation threat from the Kursk was minimal but said it was more worrisome in the long run because it sank in only about 350 feet (108 meters) deep in the rich fishing grounds of the Barents Sea.
The five other nuclear submarines that have sunk since 1963 settled on the ocean floor at depths of up to 16,000 feet (4,800 meters), far below where most marine life lives.
But some environmentalists said any radioactive material on the ocean bottom carries risk.
"There's a general feeling to keep ocean pollution as low as reasonably achievable, recognizing that any amount of radiation causes some risk of cancer and ... once you start that process you don't know where it's going to end," said Thomas Cochran of the Washington-based National Resources Defense Commission.
There have been several accidents involving nuclear submarines since the first one - the USS Nautilus - was commissioned in 1954. Only six, including the Kursk, have sunk.
But those submarines are not the only potential source of radioactive leaks in the ocean.
The Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group, counts about 100 submarines - with 52 still holding nuclear fuel - rusting at ports on the Kola Peninsula, radioactive waste stored on nine rickety ships and 17 nuclear reactors dumped in the Kara Sea.
Until 1990, the Soviet Navy routinely dumped radioactive waste in Arctic waters, and the Russian Navy continued to do so in the Far East until Japan agreed to assist in a waste disposal project.
Russian officials said the Kursk, which has been trapped in the Barents Sea since this weekend with 116 sailors on board, was not carrying nuclear weapons and its two nuclear reactors had been switched off.
Norwegian government scientists have found no trace of radiation in air samples, but said it was difficult to gauge the danger since what happened to the ship was still unclear.
But William Peden of Greenpeace said any possibility of radiation leakage was too much, and demanded the Kursk be raised to the surface as soon as possible rather than just contained as other vessels have been.
"The Kursk adds another submarine and another reactor to the ocean bed," Peden said. "Even if there are no reactor leaks right now, there is the possibility that sometime in the future there could be a leak and this submarine's integrity is already threatened."
Greenpeace called Tuesday for all operational nuclear submarines to be decommissioned.
The Bellona Foundation has been monitoring the wreck of the Komsomolets, a Soviet submarine that caught fire off Norway in 1989. It had been the shallowest wreck, sitting 4,500 feet (1,350 meters) below the surface.
Oceanographers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, described the risk of a radiation leak from Komsomolets contaminating the food chain as "very, very low."
Experts recommended against salvaging it because it could break apart near the surface, where most fishing takes place. Part of the ship was sealed, but plans to seal off other portions were delayed due to a lack of funding in the Russian navy, the Bellona Foundation said.
Two other Soviet submarines, one that caught fire and sank 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) east of Bermuda in 1986 and another that went down in the Bay of Biscay near Spain in 1970, are both sitting at almost 16,000 feet (4,800 meters) below the surface - too deep to sound alarms.
Two U.S. nuclear submarines sank in the 1960s during the Cold War, but they also were deep enough that scientists said any radiation would not have been transmitted through the food chain.