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Arctic tragedy: the loss of Russian sailors in nuclear submarine accidents


Russia’s ‘slow-motion Chernobyl’ at sea, FUTURE PLANET | OCEANS
By Alec Luhn, 2nd September 2020    By tradition, Russians always bring an odd number of flowers to a living person and an even number to a grave or memorial. But every other day, 83-year-old Raisa Lappa places three roses or gladiolas by the plaque to her son Sergei in their hometown Rubtsovsk, as if he hadn’t gone down with his submarine during an ill-fated towing operation in the Arctic Ocean in 2003.“I have episodes where I’m not normal, I go crazy, and it seems that he’s alive, so I bring an odd number,” she says. “They should raise the boat, so we mothers could put our sons’ remains in the ground, and I could maybe have a little more peace.”

After 17 years of unfulfilled promises, she may finally get her wish, though not out of any concern for the bones of Captain Sergei Lappa and six of his crew. With a draft decree published in March, President Vladimir Putin set in motion an initiative to lift two Soviet nuclear submarines and four reactor compartments from the silty bottom, reducing the amount of radioactive material in the Arctic Ocean by 90%. First on the list is Lappa’s K-159. ……………..

‘Cursed August’

Sergei Lappa was born in 1962 in Rubtsovsk, a small city in the Altai Mountains near the border with Kazakhstan. Though it was thousands of miles to the nearest ocean, he cultivated an interest in seafaring at a local model shipbuilding club, and after school he was accepted into the higher naval engineering academy in Sevastopol, Crimea. Tall, athletic and a good student, he was assigned to the navy’s most prestigious service: the Northern Submarine Fleet.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, the military went into a decline that was revealed to the world when the top-of-the-line attack submarine Kursk sank with 118 crew on board in August 2000. By this time, Lappa was in charge of the K-159, which had been rusting since 1989 at a pier in the isolated navy town of Gremikha, nicknamed the “island of flying dogs” for its strong winds. On the morning of 29 August 2003, the long-delayed order came to tow the decrepit K-159, which had been attached to four 11-tonne pontoons with cables to keep it afloat during the operation, to a base near Murmansk for dismantling, despite a forecast of windy weather.

With the reactors off, Lappa and his skeleton crew of nine engineers operated the boat by flashlight. As the submarine was towed near Kildin Island at half past midnight, the cables to the bow pontoons broke in heavy seas, and a half-hour later water was discovered trickling into the eighth compartment. But as headquarters struggled with the decision to launch an expensive rescue helicopter, the crew kept trying to keep the submarine afloat. At 02:45am Mikhail Gurov sent one last radio transmission: “We’re flooding, do something!” By the time rescue boats from the tug arrived, the K-159 was on the bottom near Kildin Island. Of the three sailors who made it out, the only survivor was senior lieutenant Maxim Tsibulsky, whose leather jacket had filled with air and kept him afloat.

Yet another nuclear submarine had sunk during the “cursed” month of August, Russian newspapers wrote, but the incident caused little furore compared to the Kursk. The navy promised relatives it would raise the K-159 the next year, then repeatedly delayed the project.

Even after 17 years of scavenging and corrosion, at least the bones of the crew likely remain in the submarine, according to Lynne Bell, a forensic anthropologist at Simon Fraser University. But the families have long since lost hope of recovering them.

“For all the relatives it would bring some relief if their fathers and husbands were buried, not just lying on the bottom in a steel hulk,” Gurov’s son Dmitry says. “It’s just that no one believes this will happen.”

The situation has now changed, however, as Russia’s interest revives in the Arctic and its crumbling Soviet ports and military towns. Since 2013, seven Arctic military bases and two tanker terminals have been built as part of the Northern Sea Route, a shorter route to China that Putin has promised will see 80 million tonnes of traffic by 2025. The K-159 is lying underneath the eastern end of the route………….https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200901-the-radioactive-risk-of-sunken-nuclear-soviet-submarines

September 3, 2020 - Posted by | ARCTIC, incidents, oceans, PERSONAL STORIES, Reference

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