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Profile: John Large


If the world's media had not been transfixed by the horror of events in the US following 11 September, it is likely that attention would have been focused instead on an engineering feat of stunning scale and ingenuity, says the engineer responsible for nuclear safety, John Large.

Raising the Kursk, the Russian nuclear submarine that sank mysteriously two years ago in Barents Sea, involved lifting the wreck beneath a 140m barge and transporting it, like an underwater shadow, to drydock in Murmansk.

Work was complex and high risk - not least because explosion of one of the Kursk's 22 cruise missiles would have sunk the entire salvage fleet. And over the whole operation hung the hazard of nuclear contamination from the Kursk's reactor.

To assess how best to raise the submarine without damaging its reactor, salvage expert Smit Mammoet called in UK specialist and associate member of the ICE, John Large.

In the last 15 years Large, a former UK Atomic Energy Authority research fellow and university lecturer, has grown a reputation as a scourge of the UK nuclear establishment. In the late 1980s he was hired by environmental group Greenpeace to present evidence in one of its anti-nuclear campaigns and has never looked back. His nuclear industry experience, allied with a willingness to challenge establishment views, has created high demand for Large's expertise and given him a high media profile.

Large was asked to provide an environmental risk assessment in 1989 when fire broke out on board the nuclear submarine Konsomlets, sinking it off the Norwegian coast.

Over the following two years, he carried out hazard studies of Russia's nuclear fleet in Vladivostok.

He was sought out again last year when cracking in the reactor core of the Royal Navy's nuclear submarine Tireless forced it into port in Gibraltar. Tireless had dumped litres of radioactive coolant overboard, raising fears of contamination.

On all of these jobs, Large has been required to exercise what he describes as an 'arrogant personality'.

Communicating via a translator, Large battled hard for information on the Kursk: 'We're talking about the pride of the Russian fleet, carrying cruise missiles designed to sink US aircraft carriers and powered by state of the art nuclear reactors.' Nonetheless, he won.

'You need to be quite aggressive to have a crack at naval officers and nuclear engineers, ' says John Large of his work helping raise the Kursk nuclear submarine.

The challenges and complexity involved made raising the Kursk perhaps Large's most interesting job to date. His unusual status enables him to eschew standard engineering procedures in favour of independent and lateral thinking: 'The older you get, the more wisdom you can rely on - the more you can depend on your own judgement.'

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