Sun 4 Mar 2007
Scots expertise key to nuclear sub salvage bid
IT LIES almost 800ft down on the bed of the Barents Sea. Carrying almost three-quarters of a ton of nuclear fuel, the Russian submarine K-159 became an environmental menace when it sank 14 years ago with the loss of nine crew members.
But Scots researchers are now to play a key role in an international project to lift the stricken submarine from the seabed and safely dispose of the nuclear hazard.
A team based at St Andrews and Dundee universities has developed a sonar camera system capable of capturing the most detailed pictures of the wreck ever taken.
In a world first, it will be secured to an unmanned submersible to take it down to where the submarine lies. The team, which includes the Ministry of Defence's marine salvage branch, hopes to obtain detailed images of the submarine's hull to find out whether it can take the strain of being lifted to the surface.
Trials involving the camera and the submersible ROV (remote operated vehicle) took place off the west coast of Scotland last month, at the Underwater Research Centre in Fort William. If further trials next month are successful, the real operation could take place later this summer.
The wreck lies in deep water off the port of Murmansk in northern Russia, where it sank during a storm while being towed by a navy vessel to be broken up.
Craig English, the staff officer with the MoD's Salvage and Marine Operations branch, said the camera had proved its worth on wrecks in relatively shallow water where it could be lowered on a long pole.
But a means had to be found to get it to greater depths if it was to help with wrecks such as the K-159.
"So we came up with the idea of using an ROV to overcome these problems. We conducted trials at Fort William last month and the results were very encouraging.
"This is all about positioning the ROV very accurately. What we now have is the capability and we will be going back to conduct more trials in the Sound of Mull.
"What this will give us is an excellent visual tool that we can use on such sites as the Russian wreck."
The camera has been developed by ADUS, a joint-venture underwater imaging company based at the two Scottish universities.
The technology was used recently to get the clearest-ever pictures of the HMS Royal Oak, a battleship sunk by a German torpedo in Scapa Flow during the Second World War and which is still leaking oil.
Although wrecks have been surveyed by sonar before, the difficulty has always been in getting the system close enough to the remains to build up an accurate picture of the damage.
The ADUS sonar camera uses a global positioning satellite system but, unlike K-159, the Royal Oak sank in just 30 metres of water.
Mark Lawrence, a spokesman for ADUS, said: "The technology is the same but the method of deployment will be different. We used long poles to get down to the Royal Oak, but obviously in this much greater depth of water, that is not possible. So we are strapping the camera to one of Salvage & Marine's ROVs to get the best survey pictures we can."
The international effort to lift K-159 follows last year's G8 Summit in Russia, at which leading nations pledged to help the former Soviet Union clean up the nuclear legacy of the Cold War. The Soviets lost at least six nuclear submarines at sea while on operations around the world.
K-159 was part of the Soviet Red Banner Fleet operating out of its northern bases. Commissioned in 1962 and decommissioned in 1989, it was left to rot in a military dock without the removal of its nuclear fuel.
In 1993, embarrassed by international concern over its failure to clean up nuclear hazards, the Russians decided to take the submarine, along with 16 others, to a remote shipyard where they would be dismantled.
But the rusting hulk sank while under tow, taking nine of its 10-man crew with it.