Kursk may remain in Barents Sea

Publish date: March 17, 2001

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The Western frustration over the nuclear safety co-operation in north-west Russia may hamper the lifting of the Kursk. Russian officials are resistant to sign the multilateral nuclear safety co-operation agreement.

The lifting of the Kursk submarine has been postponed from summer to autumn 2001. Russian officials say that the reason is the inability of the International Kursk Foundation to collect necessary funds. The Kursk Foundation says the prerequisite for the contributions from the EU, Norway, Japan, Canada and the USA to raise the submarine is Russia’s signing of the framework agreement on nuclear safety projects in north-west Russia.

Secretary of the International Kursk Foundation, Rio D. Praaning, has warned that should no compromise be reached at the EU-Russia Summit in Stockholm in March, the Kursk will remain on the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Shortly before that, the Russian deputy prime minister, Ilya Klebanov, said, that raising of the nuclear submarine would be postponed from summer to the beginning of autumn 2001. Speaking about the reasons, Mr Klebanov referred to "difficulties with collection of the funds required for the operation".

According to Klebanov, during the next week Russian government will issue a decree. By this decree the government is going to guarantee financing of the operation to the international consortium of companies, which will be involved in lifting of the Kursk. The Russian government may step in with full funding, if the Kursk Foundation does not manage to collect the required funds.

In January 2001, the Kursk Foundation offered the following funding scheme: the EU, Japan, Canada, Norway and the USA were to sponsor the lifting operation with 1,9 million EURO each. That would make 50% of the total budget, totalling 76 million EURO, while the Russian side was to finance the other half.

Russia resistant to assume nuclear liability
The Kursk Foundation did not apparently expect the chill reception from the potential donor countries. The reason to such reaction is a great degree of frustration among the EU countries and the USA regarding implementation of the nuclear safety projects both in north-west Russia and in the Russian Far East.

Until today, all the projects were framed by bilateral agreements between Russian and Western governments. The agreements were to solve the tax exemption issue for the equipment delivered free of charge to Russia, as well as to resolve the nuclear liability issue. The nuclear liability is an insurance that if something goes wrong on the Western equipment, the Western company, which delivered the equipment, is not responsible to deal with the consequences. In Europe this issue is regulated by the Vienna Convention. Russia has not ratified this convention until today, referring to the lack of financial means, which should be contributed after the ratification.

No domestic laws in Russia regulate the nuclear insurance. The development of such laws have been blocked by the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy, which fears it may go bankrupt, should a nuclear accident occur at one of ministry’s installation.

…and unwilling to sign multilateral agreement
It took a lot of time and resources to iron out bilateral agreements on each program or even a particular project. In 1998 the EU, Norway and the USA resolved to put together all the programs and initiatives on nuclear safety in north-west Russia in one multilateral framework agreement called MNEPR – Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programs in Russia. But talks on the agreement went slow and eventually stumbled to a halt. Russian officials, for example, did not want to agree with USA’s demand to provide diplomatic immunity to the foreigners involved in the clean-up work. But such demand seems more than justified after casting a glance at the “espionage” cases unveiled by the Russian security police, the FSB, during the past years. All those cases were collapsing as soon as they were in court. None of the Western companies would be willing to send their employees to a country where they risk to be stamped as “spies” for no reason and sent to prison.

Kursk Foundation request turned down
In August 2000, the Kursk submarine sank. The world’s attention was focused on the submarine and the nuclear safety issues in the Murmansk region, where more than 100 retired submarines are rusting in various based and shipyards.

The Kursk Foundation created a coupe of months after the Kursk disaster hoped to collect funding promptly to lift the submarine.

But the foundation received no positive response from the potential donor countries. The representatives of the foundation were explained that funds could be provided not for a single project but rather for a program to secure all the retired submarines in north-west Russia. The precondition to fulfil this program must be the signing of the multilateral framework agreement.

"Western countries do not want to allot funds, while Moscow does not agree to participate in the EU program on securing nuclear waste in north-west Russia. The [Russian] government agrees to participate in it, but they want to receive money for the salvage first. EU cannot agree with such an offer,” Mr Praaning summarised the situation.

But before the foundation admitted its inability to collect funds, a compromise solution was proposed.

Deputy prime minister, Ilya Klebanov, on recommendation of the Kursk Foundation, agreed to connect lifting of the Kursk with other nuclear safety projects in north-west Russia. The letter, containing such promise and signed by Klebanov, was sent to the EU Foreign Relations Commissioner, Christopher Patten, on February 13 2001.

It was proposed in the letter that the Kursk Foundation could accumulate funds to carry on nuclear safety projects after the Kursk has been raised. The multilateral agreement was not mentioned specifically, but was meant to be a part of the further work.

Commissioner Patten was not convinced. The EU and other countries still insisted on signing MNEPR as the first step.

Can operation be carried out in autumn?
Now Klebanov says that the salvage of the Kursk will be most likely carried out in the end of August, or in September 2001. The date for signing the contract between St Petersburg central design bureau Rubin and the international consortium, including Halliburton (USA) and Dutch companies, Heerema Marine Contractors and Smit Tak, will also be moved.

The possibility to carry out the operation, should the schedule move on to autumn, is also in question.

Russian Hydro-Meteorological Service estimates that the weather conditions will allow carrying out the operation in the beginning of autumn 2001. According to the sea forecasts group of the Murmansk oceanography department of the Hydro-Meteorological Service, long-term observation data over the Barents Sea conditions says no storms are coming. But weather conditions can worsen hampering the operation if it starts in the middle of October.

At the same time, according to Mr Praaning, the ship can be lifted only in summer and “the operation becomes dangerous” otherwise.

The Kursk submarine, which sank on August 12th 2000 at the depth of 108 meters near the Kola Peninsula, will be lifted with the first compartment cut away. The lifting operation is to take about three hours, then the submarine will be transported to one of the shipyards in the Murmansk area. Lifting of the submarine is believed to be the only way to prevent leakage of radioactivity in the future.

The Kursk Foundation
The board of the International Kursk Foundation, created on November 7th 2000, is comprised of scientists and former politicians. Most of the foundation members were the initiators of the Komsomolets Foundation established back in early 90-s. The Komsomolets Foundation had the objective of lifting nuclear powered submarine Komsomolets.

The Komsomolets submarine sank after a fire in the Norwegian Sea on April 7th 1989. 42 sailors perished in the accident. But the projects to lift the submarines ended in vain, despite the major international attention.

In the beginning of the 90-s the foundation paid $7 million to Dutch companies for the feasibility study on salvaging the submarine. But the $220 million project was eventually dropped. Academician Igor Spassky, the head of Rubin design bureau, was a board member of the Komsomolets Foundation. Today Mr Spassky is deputy chairman of the International Kursk Foundation.

Having failed in its main task, the Foundation extended its activity in other fields. It signed, for example, a memorandum between with the Russian Civil Defence and Emergency Situations Ministry in March 1994. The memorandum stipulated maintenance of a memorial at the place of TU-104 aircraft crash in the Pacific, which happened in 1981. There were also other Komsomolets-unrelated activities.

The Komsomolets submarine equipped with one PWR reactor and armed with nuclear torpedoes rests at the depth of 1,685m in the Norwegian Sea. The radioactivity measurements on site showed small washout of plutonium from its nuclear warheads.