The K-159 Sinking: Worse Than the Kursk?

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K-159, a rust bucket of a Russian nuclear submarine, was being towed to a navy scrap yard late last month when it sprang a leak and went down in the Barents Sea. Nine sailors lost their lives — a fraction of the 118 who died when another Russian submarine, the Kursk, exploded and sank three years ago. But this latest sub disaster could have more serious consequences. A high-level Russian official tells TIME that K-159 "presents a threat more menacing than that of the Kursk," a state-of-the-art submarine whose reactors were much less likely to leak radioactive material before the sub could be recovered. "There's no telling how [K-159] will hold up under water," this source says. The wreckage is under crushing pressure, 781 ft. down, and its hull is deeply corroded. Although its reactors ground to a halt 15 years ago, the spent nuclear fuel--1,760 lbs. of the stuff — was never unloaded. Adding to the worry, K-159 sank in the waters between Russia and Norway, an area crisscrossed by commercial shipping lanes and fishing boats. Norway's Fisheries Directorate says it is waiting for reports from Norwegian radiation authorities to assess whether the K-159 has leaked radioactive material.

If the Kursk recovery is any guide, salvage operations won't be possible before May. The Russian Naval Command hasn't committed to a date but promises it will retrieve K-159 by next year — without foreign assistance. TIME's source is skeptical. The navy is short on funds. Three years after the Kursk disaster, it still hasn't bought the gear necessary for such an operation. The government, meanwhile, has allocated only $70 million for all nuclear clean-up and maintenance in Russia. It cost $150 million to recover the Kursk.