Moscow, Aug. 30 (Reuters): A Russian nuclear-powered submarine sank in stormy Arctic seas today as it was being towed into port for scrapping and up to nine servicemen were feared dead, defence officials said.
The officials said the K-159 sank onto the seabed 170 metres down in the Barents Sea, but they ruled out the possibility of an ecological threat since the vessel’s nuclear reactors were shut down in 1989 when it was decommissioned. An environmental pressure group, however, said water was likely to seep into the reactors and that radiation levels in the area would have to be watched closely.
In Italy, President Vladimir Putin, who suffered badly in political fall-out from the sinking of another nuclear submarine the Kursk in the Barents three years ago, vowed a thorough investigation. “Of course, all reasons for the tragedy will be established,” he told reporters on board the missile cruiser Moskva off Sardinia where he is on a visit.
Navy chief-of-staff Viktor Kravchenko said the K-159 — like the Kursk — would be raised. “At the moment we are considering the various ways of raising (the submarine). We will definitely raise it so that it can be destroyed,” he said in televised comments.
The bodies of two servicemen were recovered shortly after the incident, which happened in an early morning storm. One officer was rescued alive from the crew of 10 on board when the accident happened at midnight GMT.
Kravchenko was pessimistic about finding the seven missing sailors alive, given heavy seas and a water temperature of 10 degrees Celsius . “Unfortunately, the hopes of finding alive the missing are very slight,” he said, though a sea and air rescue operation continued.
Kravchenko, in a televised exchange with defence minister Sergei Ivanov, said both reactors had been switched off on the K-159 in 1989 and “put into a nuclear safe condition”.
“At this site, the radioactive level is normal,” he said.
Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said all weapons, including torpedoes and rockets, had also been removed from the vessel when it was decommissioned.
Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which has long studied Russia’s nuclear arsenal, blasted Moscow for allowing the ageing hulk to be towed in rough seas and said new disasters were likely because of poor security.