Commission Investigating the Causes of the Kursk Disaster
On March 14, 2000, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed a government order to form a commission to investigate the causes of the accident aboard the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine.
The commission was headed up by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov with Navy Commander in Chief Vladimir Kuroyedov as his deputy. The other members of the commission are Vice Admiral Yury Sukhachev, Vice President of the Russian academy of Science Nikolai Laverov, and Duma Speaker for the Primorye region Alexei Zhekov.
There are also a number if military and civilian specialists on the commission: the deputy chief of the Nuclear Energy Ministry, the chief designer of submarine’s nuclear power unit, the representatives from the Rubin Marine Engineering Central Design Bureau (ME CDB), and designers from Nizhni Novgorod and Moscow businesses.
Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev called for the establishment of a parliamentary commission to investigate the causes of the sinking of the submarine. Several leaders of factions and committees in the State Duma backed the idea. However, on September 15, 2000, the State Duma turned down the proposal to set up an independent parliamentary commission.
On December 19, 2000, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed an order to include 9 Duma deputies in the government commission investigating the causes of Kursk disaster. The following deputies were included in the commission: Alexei Arbatov, Vladimir Gusenkov, Valery Dorogin, Vladimir Lushin, Yury Maslyukov, Mikhail Musatov, Andrei Nikolayev, Igor Rodionov and Grigory Tomchin. Valery Dorogin leads the group of deputies in the commission.
The Commission's Work
The first meeting of the commission lasted for about eight hours on August 17, 2000 in Severomorsk. At the end of the meeting, the commission chairman, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, announced that the commission considered that the most feasible cause of the accident with the submarine was a collision with “an unknown floating object.”
Having described the commission’s conclusions as “preliminary,” Klebanov noted that judging by the damage done to the submarine, that object was of “very large tonnage.” The deputy prime minister confirmed that not a single vessel of corresponding size had been detected in the accident area. On August 18, 2000, the commission continued its session on board the cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great). On the following day, the commission summed up the results of its investigations:
1. At the moment of the accident, the Kursk was at a depth of 16-18 meters when it unexpectedly received “a powerful, dynamic blow.”
2. As a result of the assumed collision, a hole was produced in the Kursk's front compartment and sank swiftly. Experts estimate that this took no more than 2 minutes.
3. Upon hitting the bottom, ammunition detonated in the torpedo room in the nose of the vessel. It is assumed that 3-4 torpedoes exploded – the equivalent of a two-ton explosion of TNT.
Since the appearance of large tonnage vessels in the exercise area was practically excluded, the military presumed that the sub collided with “an underwater object.” Three Russian submarines that were in the exercise area have already been inspected for traces of such a collision. However, no such traces were detected. According to military data, there were several submarines from NATO countries in the Barents Sea for monitoring the exercises.
After the session, Klebanov announced that “there still were chances of finding members of the crew alive in the stern.”
Klebanov also announced that the Kursk could be lifted from the seabed “exclusively through underwater cooperation.” He described the raising of the Kursk as an incredibly complicated technical task, and said that a project for lifting the submarine would be submitted to the commission in a fortnight. A group of leading Russian design institutes headed by the St. Petersburg Rubin CDB was working on the draft.
At its August 29, 2000 session in the Rubin CDB, the government commission adopted a decision to bring the bodies of the dead submariners to the surface. Moreover, out of the 12 versions explaining the causes of the Kursk tragedy examined by the commission, 9 were stricken from the list. After the session, Klebanov refuted information that a new type of torpedo had allegedly exploded aboard the submarine during testing.
On September 18, 2000, Klebanov announced that the commission now faced the following question: should they conduct the operation in two stages – retrieving the bodies first and then lifting the submarine, or to do both simultaneously. In the latter case, the operation could be carried out at the end of summer and the beginning of autumn of the following year. “The vessel is to be lifted in any case,” Klebanov emphasized.
At its October 13, 2000 session the commission established that there had been two explosions aboard the submarine. It was established that the second explosion occurred 35 seconds after the first one. During the period between the two explosions, the sub advanced 400 meters and settled on the seabed. Rubin General Director Igor Spassky is convinced that by that time there was already no one alive on board the Kursk.
These conclusions are based on an analysis of fragments that were raised from the seabed. Klebanov announced that in the area where the Kursk went down, no objects were found that could serve as material evidence that the cause of the accident could have been a collision with an unknown object. In addition, Klebanov emphasized that the Kursk’s “reactor was ideal.”
Another note written by one of the dead seamen from the Kursk was presented to the investigating commission at its meeting at Russian naval headquarters on November 8, 2000. Klebanov announced at the end of the session that there was no unanimous opinion among the commission members as to what caused the sinking of the submarine. “The commission is still examining three main versions of the Kursk disaster. These are: collision with a World War II sea mine, an accident in the first compartment and a collision with a foreign submarine,” he explained.
On December 26, Klebanov announced that the plan for lifting the stricken sub from the bed of the Barents Sea was to be endorsed in January 2001, while the operation itself was scheduled for the summer of 2001. According to him, the estimated cost of the lifting operation was $80 million. It is assumed that approximately $60 million of this sum would be used for paying for the work performed by the western partners participating in the operation. On the following day, Klebanov announced that at the moment the commission was examining only two versions of the catastrophe: Kursk’s collision with another object and a torpedo explosion aboard the submarine itself.
The group of Duma deputies participated for the first time in the commission’s February 10, 2001 meeting at Rubin CDB. At the February 12, 2001 meeting, Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Nikolayev reported that there were again three main versions, ranked in the order of most feasible: collision with another vessel, collision with a sea mine, an explosion aboard the submarine due to some kind of technical reasons.
On February 15, 2001 Duma Deputy Valery Dorogin voiced the opinion that even after the submarine is raised from the bottom of the Barents Sea, it will hardly be possible to establish the causes that led to its sinking. “It is obvious,” he declared, “that we shall never learn what caused the first explosion.” According to him, the investigation has already shown that in all likelihood the first detonation was an explosion of the fuel components in one of the torpedoes, the equivalent of 100 kilograms of TNT; the second explosion of considerably greater force, the equivalent of one ton of TNT, was activated by the first explosion; and the seamen in the forward compartments of the sub were killed almost instantaneously. As to the crew in the stern compartments, they could have survived from 6 to 9 hours. After that, they all perished as a result of either fire or asphyxiation by carbon monoxide.
In spite of Dorogin's opinion that lifting the Kursk will not tell us what caused the first explosion, the submarine must be brought to the surface for research purposes so as to determine how the reactor behaved during the explosion.
At the beginning of April 2001, the media carried reports asserting that commission member and Duma deputy, Grigory Tomchin, had said that missiles tipped with nuclear warheads could be on board the Kursk. Later, Tomchin himself refuted such reports, branding them as a provocation aimed at wrecking the international project to recover the Kursk. According to him, a Norwegian TV company had distorted his interview in which he said that there were no nuclear arms aboard the Kursk. Norwegian and Russian military and ecologists unanimously agreed that there were no nuclear arms on board the Kursk.
The plan for lifting the Kursk was endorsed by the commission at its May 13, 2001 meeting. According to Klebanov, the operation itself that will be carried out in two stages and will cover a period of approximately 3 months. It has been estimated that the operation will be completed by September 20, 2001.