Naval engineers using a remote-controlled mini-sub conducted exploratory work today at the site where the Kursk nuclear submarine sank, laying the groundwork for the complex, two-month operation to raise the shattered ship.
Seven ships including the Mayo, a Norwegian dive support ship, were at the site in the Barents Sea, 93 miles off the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk.
They were joined today by an eighth vessel, the Klavdiya Yelanskaya, carrying scores of journalists.
The exploration mini-sub from the Mayo began radiation checks on Sunday, taking samples from the water and sea bed, to make sure the area is safe for divers to begin the operation to raise the Kursk.
The submarine exploded and sank last August, during a training exercise in the Arctic waters off northern Russia, killing all 118 crewmen aboard. The operation to raise the submarine, which has two nuclear reactors and is believed to have unexploded torpedoes aboard, is scheduled to last until mid-September.
Russia has maintained that no radiation has leaked from the wreck but says it is raising it to ensure it poses no future danger. But nuclear safety officials in nearby Norway have said the operation’s tight schedule increases the risk of a nuclear accident in the Arctic.
In Moscow, Russian Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said that regular monitoring over the past year had shown no increased levels of radioactivity.
"We have seriously addressed the ecological aspect in the technical project of the operation," he said.
Dygalo said that the unmanned vessel had drawn a "detailed map" of the site where the Kursk lies.
"The maps show in detail the situation 100 feet around the submarine," he said.
"Naturally, water and soil samples have been taken to check for radioactivity."
Meanwhile, Russian naval aviation chief Ivan Fedin said today that his pilots had spotted several foreign "underwater objects" trying to approach the Kursk and pointed them out to Russian Navy ships, which drove them out.
He refused to identify the so-called objects’ countries of origin.
In the first phase of the operation to bring up the Kursk, which lies under 356 feet of water, remote-control devices were being used to wash away soil surrounding the first compartment, Dygalo said.
The front compartment, which was damaged in the explosion that sank the Kursk, will be cut off. Russian Navy officials said they would decide later whether it could be raised separately next year.
After the front part is detached, Russian and foreign divers will drill holes in the hull and attach steel cables for lifting the vessel, which is tentatively set for September 15. The steel cables will be attached to 26 hydraulic lifting units anchored to a giant pontoon. Once the Kursk is raised, the pontoon will be towed to Murmansk where the submarine will be put in dry dock.
Russian officials say they also need to raise the Kursk to find the reason for its sinking. Officials said the disaster had been triggered by a practice torpedo, but say they remain unsure whether it had been caused by an internal malfunction in the torpedo - the theory favoured by most outside experts - or a collision.