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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 18:18 GMT
Analysis: Salvaging the Prestige
Under-water pictures of the Prestige
The Prestige could be leaking oil until 2006

There are a number of seemingly insurmountable difficulties associated with salvaging the wrecked tanker Prestige, which is lying on the Atlantic seabed off the north-west coast of Spain.

It has never been done before

Lars Walder
Smit spokesman
The first and most obvious complication is that the wreck - which split into two pieces - is now lying 3,500 metres (12,000 feet) deep.

The last operation to reach anywhere near that level of complexity was the salvage operation on Russia's Kursk submarine which only lay at a depth of 100 metres, Lars Walder, a spokesman for Dutch shipping and salvage firm Smit International, told BBC News Online.

There are three options for the salvage operation - each presenting unique difficulties:

  • Pump the oil
  • Bury the wreck in a concrete sarcophagus
  • Seal the breaches in the hull.

Mr Walder says the conditions at the wreck site are very difficult, starting with constant waves five metres (16 foot) high.

"There are currents, there is the pressure and the problems with pumping the oil to the surface" over such a long distance, he told BBC News Online.

"It has never been done before," he said. "The deeper it is, the more difficult."

Jose Maria Aznar
Critics accuse Aznar of an inadequate response

Smit, a Rotterdam-based company that was part of the consortium that helped to raise the Kursk, is working on a plan to salvage oil from the wreck.

The firm has yet to release full details of its plan, but reports say Smit is looking at ways of sealing the leaks and pumping the remaining cargo to the surface.

The operation would take two to three months to prepare and another several months to carry out, Mr Walder said.

Smit was in charge of the Prestige salvage operation when it began listing on 13 November after being gashed during heavy storms.

'Nothing is impossible'

Trying to pump the oil from such a depth would prove technically difficult, if not impossible, some experts say.

"At 120 metres, you can use divers but that's impossible at 3,500 metres," said Bruno Faure, from the French company involved in the Erika tanker salvage in 1999.

Prestige wreck
Lying in 3,500 metres (12,000 feet) of water
240 km (130 nautical miles) off Spain's north-western coast
Split in two parts 4 km (two miles) apart
Original 77,000-ton cargo
Leaking oil takes a day to reach surface

Instead of divers, remote-controlled submersible craft would have to be used, but even that poses problems.

"The electronic instruments are not built to withstand water pressure at 3,500 metres," Mr Faure said.

The oil would be pumped out to a platform on the surface as if it were an oil field.

Another suggestion is to bury the wreck in a concrete sarcophagus - the method used to seal the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

"It would be very difficult and probably very costly," Mr Faure said. "Imagine half a Titanic on the seabed."

Or an attempt could be made to mend the hull by sealing the cracks using a robot.

Other experts were more upbeat about the chances that some sort of salvage operation might work.

"Nothing is impossible," said Norwegian expert Serge Ellana of the firm Stolt Offshore. "A few years ago it was considered impossible to work 2,500 metres down."

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar fought off criticism that the decision to tow the ship out to sea made salvage efforts more difficult.

No port would have agreed to accept a boat that was threatening to spill millions of gallons of fuel, he says.

A Spanish scientific commission has been set up to investigate the situation.

Spain's coast and maritime fauna are threatened by the oil spill from the break-up of the Prestige

Key stories



See also:

11 Dec 02 | Europe
09 Dec 02 | Europe
06 Dec 02 | Europe
03 Dec 02 | Europe
19 Nov 02 | Science/Nature
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