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Kursk Disaster Won't Stop Plan For Nuclear Cargo Subs

By Christopher Pala     Dec 2, 2000 in Technology
St. Petersburg (dpa) - The recent sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk came amid one of the boldest swords-to-ploughshares projects in history: the retrofitting of three Russian nuclear- powered submarines into cargo carriers that would haul thousands of tons of nickel under the ice off Russia's Arctic coast.
"Of course we're very concerned about the causes of the Kursk disaster," said Anatoli Komrakov, spokesman for RAO Norilsk Nickel, the Siberian mining and smelter conglomerate behind the plan.
"But we believe we have an excellent submarine and whatever sank the Kursk (on August 12, with the loss of its crew of 118), we don't think it was a design flaw, so we are definitely not freezing our project."
The submarine Norilsk Nickel wants - the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) calls it the Typhoon - is, at 36,000 tons, the biggest in the world and is arguably the most lethal weapon ever built.
Designed with unique ice-breaking capabilities, it carries 20 SS- N-20 missiles, each with ten warheads, for a total of 200 independently targeted nuclear bombs, each one seven times more powerful than the one that hit Hiroshima.
Three Typhoons are more or less operational and another three had been headed for destruction until they caught the eye of the management of Norilsk Nickel, the world's biggest producer of nickel.
Built in the 1930s with prison labour at the cost of thousands of lives, NN today is one of Russia's most profitable enterprises, with 1999 sales of 2.9 billion dollars and profits of 1.2 billion dollars.
Most of its 103,000 employees work in the city of Norilsk, 700 miles north of Russia's highway network. They produce 22 per cent of the world's nickel, along with 60 per cent of its palladium and 40 per cent of its platinum.
Getting these valuable metals to their markets, mostly Germany's industrial Ruhr valley via Rotterdam, requires travel through waters that are choked with ice nine months a year, on ships that sail in convoys led by nuclear ice-breakers.
The fleet is owned by Russia's largest oil company, Lukoil, and Norilsk Nickel worries that when one of the six ice-breakers is retired in a few years, bottlenecks will occur.
A study by the submarine's designers at St. Petersburg's Rubin Design Bureau concluded that taking out a Typhoon's missile-launchers and torpedoes will create a cargo hold capable of carrying 12,000 tons of metal under the ice and will cost 80 million.
With three Typhoons in operation, Norilsk Nickel believes it can ship out all of its exports, independently of Lukoil or of the weather, to the ice- free port of Murmansk, where they would be loaded onto surface ships.
Chairman Yuri Kotlyar has been downright enthusiastic. "I think this project is absolutely realistic," he told a wire service. "I am certain we will have our first sea trials next year."
A second study is evaluating the cost of modifying the company's docks and of operating the subs. Results are due in January, said spokesman Komrakov. A final decision will be made after that.
The project has the backing of Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander of Russia's Navy, who recently told a television interviewer that it "is the best way to use surplus submarines."
"It's a great idea," says U.S. submarine expert and author Norman Polmar. "These are marvellous ships, exceedingly well-designed. I know the designers well, and if they say they it can be done, I believe them."
Ambassador Thomas Graham, a former head of the Arms Control Agency who lives in Washington, said U.S.-Russian arms treaties involve only the destruction of missile launchers. "The owning nation can dispose of the ship as it wishes," so U.S. permission would not be required, he said.
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