For Russia's Nukes, Sunken Sub Just Tip of the Iceberg

As the Kursk rescue drama unfolds, the fate of some 100 discarded subs continues to cause concern.

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Russia's aging nuclear-powered submarine fleet has long been an accident waiting to happen. Over the past decade, Moscow's dwindling finances have forced it to scrap some two thirds of its nuclear submarine fleet; up to 100 obsolete, rusting vessels with nuclear reactors and fuel still aboard are scattered along the Kola Peninsula coastline, simply because Russia can't afford the cost of decommissioning them. But nobody would have expected the accident, when it came, to strike the Kursk, a spanking new Oscar II-class nuclear sub that only went into service in 1995. Yet it is the Kursk that languishes 350 feet down on the ocean floor, stricken after what the Russian navy calls a "big and serious collision." And despite a dramatic rescue effort, Moscow rates its chances of rescuing the 100-odd crewmen aboard as "not very high."

Information is sketchy about the fate of the Kursk: Although Moscow insists that the vessel's two nuclear reactors hadn't failed, they've clearly been shut off, leaving the vessel unable to generate the ballast to surface. The use of the world collision, of course, begs the question of what exactly the Kursk is supposed to have struck. The Barents Sea's strategic location makes it one of the world's most heavily trafficked submarine routes, but there's no indication thus far that the stricken vessel was hit by another sub.

But the negative spin on the prospects of rescuing the crew suggests the Russian navy has learned the wiles of media management. To be sure, plenty can go wrong in a complex mission to establish an air link and an escape route from the vessel at a depth of 350 feet in Arctic waters. But diminishing the prospects for their survival means the news can't get any worse, only better.

Russian authorities report that the Kursk represents no nuclear danger to the region — its reactors were shut down, and it wasn't carrying nuclear weapons. But even if it is rescued, that won't make Scandinavia a whole lot safer from the risk of nuclear disaster in the Murmansk region, where a full fifth of the world's nuclear reactors and fuel are concentrated, often aboard decrepit vessels that don't exactly inspire confidence. After all, one came close to meltdown in 1995 when an unpaid bill prompted a utility company to shut down its port electricity supply, disabling the sub's cooling system.