Fire submarine fire contained, no radiation threat

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Russian officials said a fire on a nuclear submarine had been contained Friday and ruled out radiation threats but said some crew members were still aboard.

"There are no open flames," a defence ministry statement said. Officials said the boat had been partially submerged overnight to help contain the fire.

"A part of the crew is on board the submarine and is monitoring the temperature and carbon dioxide parameters in all sections of the boat," news agencies quoted the statement as saying.

The 11,740-tonne Yekaterinburg -- one of Russia's most powerful nuclear submarines -- was undergoing repairs in the northern region of Murmansk near Norway when some wooden structures in the shipyard caught fire on Thursday.

The flames spread quickly to the outer hull and continued to burn overnight despite a massive salvage operation with 11 fire crews, several helicopters and a navy fire boat.

The emergencies ministry said seven firemen had been hospitalised after suffering smoke inhalation.

The Russian foreign ministry took the unusual step of issuing an official statement on the incident in which it confirmed the defence ministry's information and promised to issue prompt updates.

"The radiation levels, which remain normal, are being analysed across the entire Murmansk region by 59 fixed sensor systems and 25 portable stations," the foreign ministry said.

The local emergencies ministry added in its own statement that the smoldering submarine posed "no threat to the population" because its two nuclear reactors had been switched off before repairs.

Defence officials said the Delta IV class vessel -- commissioned in 1985 and one of six such vessels which are the backbone of Russia's sea-based nuclear defences -- had also been stripped of its 16 inter-continental ballistic missiles and conventional rockets.

It was not immediately clear how many crew members were aboard but officials stressed that they remained safe.

"Most of the crew has been evacuated, but some remain aboard the boat," Northern Fleet spokesman Alexander Grigoryev told the RIA Novosti news agency.

"These are servicemen tasked with ensuring the nuclear submarine's safety. Their lives are not under threat," the spokesman said.

Russian news reports said the Yekaterinburg can carry up to 140 seamen.

The defence ministry said the submarine is covered with a special rubberised coating to mute the sound of the engine and improve its stealth capabilities.

The fire in the closed military town of Roslyakovo appeared to start during a welding operation on the boat on Thursday afternoon.

"I would say the flames reached about 10 metres (over 30 feet)," one unnamed witness told the local TV-21 station on Thursday evening.

The Northern Fleet has been hit by a series of small accidents and a deadly disaster in August 2000 that killed the 118 seamen when the Kursk nuclear submarine caught fire and exploded while at sea.

Analysts said the latest accident hurt not only Russia's pride but also its nuclear defences because the submarine was effectively lost.

"This is a very serious blow to Russia's nuclear deterrence capabilities," said independent political analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

"The loss of a stategic nuclear submarine, espeicially one that had been due to remain in service for at least another decade, hurts a lot."

© 2011 AFP

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