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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Giant Kursk Pontoon Blessed

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SEVERODVINSK, Far North — Soviet-era patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers Thursday as an Orthodox priest blessed a huge pontoon to be used next month to hoist the sunken Kursk nuclear submarine back onto dry land.

Thursday's ceremony was a step forward in the operation to raise the 18,000-ton vessel that sank in the Barents Sea during naval exercises a year ago, killing the entire 118-man crew. Hundreds of officials, journalists and workers from the Sevmash shipyard watched the pontoon inching along a track onto a dock.

The priest sprinkled holy water on the 100-meter-long, 16-meter-wide pontoon, and a bottle of champagne was broken on it according to naval tradition.

In two days the pontoon, one of two to be used, will be lowered into the White Sea, about 960 kilometers north of Moscow.

Sevmash built the pontoon on order from the Dutch company Mammoet, which is preparing to lift the Kursk with another Dutch firm, Smit International. The shipyard specializes in nuclear submarines and launched the Kursk in 1994.

"The plant has proven its ability to accomplish a difficult job in a very short time," Sevmash director David Pashayev said. "The work was also important for us because we built the submarine and we consider it our duty to help raise it."

The pontoons, the second of which is to be launched next week, were built at unprecedented speed. Each pontoon is equipped with engines, pumps, life-support systems and other essential equipment.

Early next month, the pontoons are to be towed to the navy's Roslyakovo ship repair plant near Murmansk, where they will await the sub's arrival.

After the Kursk is towed to harbor, the pontoons are to be used to hoist it onto a dry dock.

Officials say the sub's two nuclear reactors had been safely shut down and have not leaked any radiation but that the vessel should be lifted to avoid any potential danger to the area's rich fishing grounds. They also say a close look at the submarine could shed light on the cause of the disaster.

"The reactor has been safely shut down and we are convinced its condition will not change during the raising," said Alexander Zavalishin, a senior engineer on the raising project.

The Kursk is to be brought to the surface Sept. 15 by steel cables connected to 26 computer-controlled hydraulic lifting devices anchored to a giant barge. Preparatory work has taken longer than expected.

The chief of the navy's weather service, Captain Viktor Kotov, warned earlier this week that rough weather in the area may interfere with the salvage effort, but a Mammoet official said Thursday the company hoped to stick to the Sept. 15 target date.

"Obviously weather is the factor. We pray for good weather," said Jan Van Seumeren, an adviser to the company's president. Van Seumeren said it would take about a week to saw off the front part of the sub. "We can do the whole job on schedule," he said.

An international team of divers has so far made 16 of 26 holes in the Kursk's double hull. Once that is completed, they will prepare to sever the submarine's mangled fore section, which is to be left behind when the Kursk is lifted for fear it could contain unexploded torpedoes and endanger the salvage effort.

The navy has said it will raise the front section — which is thought to contain more clues about the cause of the disaster — or some fragments of it next year.

Once the Kursk's bow is sawed off, the divers will attach steel cables. Towing the submarine to harbor is expected to take up to two weeks, depending on the weather.