MURMANSK, Russia – The battered nuclear submarine Kursk reached shore in sunny but chilly weather Wednesday, 14 months after it exploded and sank, killing its entire 118-man crew.
A barge hauling the submarine pulled into a Russian shipyard's waters in the final stage of a salvage effort made riskier by the ship's two nuclear reactors and missile arsenal. On Monday, a Dutch consortium finished raising the Kursk from the Barents Sea floor.
The Giant-4 barge started attaching itself to floating anchors about 500 yards from shore at Roslyakovo near Murmansk just after 5 p.m., said Russian Navy spokesman Vladimir Navrotsky. It was to take about an hour to finish the anchoring process, then two or three days to prepare the ship for docking, he said.
The Kursk's two 190-megawatt nuclear reactors have been a primary concern since the Aug. 12, 2000 explosion. Measurements conducted throughout the lifting and towing have shown no trace of leaked radiation, the Russian Northern Fleet chief, Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, said.
"People concentrated all their efforts. The situation was very tense as people felt high responsibility," Navrotsky told reporters. "After anchoring we immediately will start detailed radiation checks."
Officials have said the reactors were safely shut down when the Kursk sank and that they leaked no radiation. But the risk of a potential radiation leak in the rich fishing grounds of the Barents Sea was a key reason the Russian government cited for the costly, precarious operation to lift the Kursk.
Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who is in charge of the salvage effort in the Russian Cabinet, insisted the reactors would remain safe. "If there had been a one-in-a-million chance that something would happen, we would never had carried out the operation in Roslyakovo," Klebanov said.
Concern about a possible radiation leak prompted Roslyakovo officials to work out contingency evacuation plans and beef up stocks of iodine.
Another reason for concern was the condition of the Kursk's 22 supersonic Granit cruise missiles.
If it proves impossible to lift missiles out of their containers in a normal fashion, the navy is prepared to cut them out of the Kursk's hull together with containers, Popov said. He didn't say when the missiles would be removed, but estimated that it would take at least a year to dismantle the submarine along with its nuclear reactors and missiles.
Speaking on Russian television late Tuesday, Popov bristled with anger when asked when camera crews would be allowed close to the wreck. "For sailors, a sunken ship is like a dead body and showing a disfigured wreck is morally wrong," he snapped.
While the most cumbersome part is nearing an end, much work remains on the Kursk.
Once it is put in dry dock, officials will first take out remains of the crew to prevent damaging contact with the air. Navrotsky said officials only hope to find 30 to 40 bodies, because remains of others were likely blown to dust by powerful explosions that sank the submarine.
At least 23 Kursk sailors survived the crash for hours in the stern compartments, according to letters found when divers entered the vessel last fall and recovered 12 bodies.
It took the Dutch Mammoet-Smit International consortium just over 15 hours to lift the submarine, which was lying 356 feet below the surface, on steel cables lowered from the 26,400-ton barge. The immaculate operation cost the Russian government $65 million.
The Arctic seas, usually rough in this season, have remained unusually calm throughout the lifting and the subsequent transportation of the Kursk -- an essential condition for the success of the salvage effort. The operation went on surprisingly trouble-free after technical problems and delays caused by storms during the three-month preparatory works.
The government hopes to determine the cause of the Kursk's sinking. But skeptics say key clues to what caused the disaster are in the Kursk's mangled bow, which was sawed off and left on the seabed out of fear it could destabilize the lifting. The navy plans to raise all or part of the bow next year.