(AP) MOSCOW – A Russian nuclear-powered submarine sank in the Barents Sea on Saturday morning as it was being towed to a scrapyard, killing at least two of the 10 sailors on board, the Defense Ministry said. The two nuclear reactors of the 40-year-old K-159 was shut down at the time of the sinking at about 4 a.m. about 3 1/2 miles northwest of Kildin Island, said the Navy’s deputy chief, Adm. Viktor Kravchenko. No weapons were aboard.
Rescue ships of the Northern Fleet reached the accident site within an hour in heavy rain. One sailor was rescued, the bodies of two dead crew members were found and the fate of seven others was unknown, the ministry said.
The water in the Barents Sea was about 50 degrees where the K-159 sank, meaning a person could survive about 45 minutes without protective gear, Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo told the ITAR-Tass news agency.
“It appears that no hope remains that any of the members of the crew are still alive,” the Interfax news agency quoted Kravchenko was quoted as saying about 13 hours after the sinking.
Kravchenko and Dygalo both said earlier the submarine’s twin nuclear reactors posed no danger to the environment.
The K-159, a November-class attack submarine, was decommissioned on July 16, 1989. It was being towed on four pontoons from its base in the town of Gremikha to a plant in Polarnye where workers were to unload the nuclear fuel and scrap the vessel.
The pontoons were torn off by the fierce storm, and the submarine sank in 560 feet of water, the ministry said.
The Kremlin press service said that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was in Sardinia for meetings with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, had been informed of the sinking.
The sinking “testifies to how the sea demands discipline, it does not forgive any kind of blunder or mistake,” Putin said Saturday while conducting Berlusconi on a tour of a Russian missile cruiser anchored off Sardinia. “A thorough investigation will be conducted.”
Russia’s last major submarine accident happened Aug. 12, 2000, when the Kursk sank while on maneuvers in the Barents Sea. All 118 men on board were killed, and the tragedy shed light on the troubles of the Russian navy in the post-Soviet era.
Russia has decommissioned about 189 nuclear-powered submarines over the past 15 years. However, officials say 126 of those are still are at docks with nuclear fuel in their reactors, prompting international concern about leaks and the possibility of nuclear materials being transferred to other nations or terrorists.
It will cost $3.9 billion to scrap all the subs, Russian officials say. Yet last year, the Russian government budgeted just $70 million for improving nuclear safety in the country as a whole.
Submarines of the November class, the first generation of Russian nuclear subs, entered service between 1958-1963, according to Jane’s Fighting Ships. They carried 104 crew members, and the K-159 was designed to carry low-yield nuclear torpedoes.
A submarine of the same type, the K-8, caught fire and sank in April 1970 in the Bay of Biscay north of Spain while returning from naval maneuvers, killing 52 people.