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RPT-Russia-Alaska tunnel is far off, if not a pipe dream

(Repeating for wider distribution)

MOSCOW, April 18 (Reuters) - The world’s longest tunnel between Russia and Alaska is a very distant project if not a dream, Russian officials and firms said on Wednesday after supporters said the $65 billion plan was gathering speed.

The idea to build a tunnel or a bridge across the Bering Straits emerged more than 100 years ago under the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, but vanished into oblivion during Soviet times amid confrontation with the United States.

It was revived after the collapse of the Soviet Union only to be forgotten again after Russia’s 1998 financial crisis.

A decade later, the project’s enthusiasts and coordinators say Russia’s economic upturn make it possible to build the tunnel in 12 years to directly connect the two former arch-rivals.

The project also involves building 6,000 km (3,700 miles) of transport links, including roads, power lines and oil pipelines to deliver resources from Siberia to new markets.

“It is planned to call on the governments of Russia, the United States and Canada to sign an inter-governmental agreement to study and implement the project,” the coordination group said in a statement ahead of a planned conference on April 24.

The project is being coordinated by Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group, co-chaired by Russian academic Viktor Razbegin.

The project coordinators name Russia’s economy and transport ministries as well as Russian power, railway and oil pipeline monopolies as among the conference organizers .

But those named played down the idea, with some potential participants saying they were not enthusiastic and others denying they were involved.

“I’ve never heard of this plan,” said Sergei Grigoryev, vice-president of oil pipeline monopoly Transneft.

“We need to first develop fields in East Siberia and this is the very distant future. It will take at least 30 years. And today we are busy doing other things anyway -- we are building a pipeline to China and the Pacific coast,” he added.

“We will probably take part in the project, but more discussions are needed,” said a spokeswoman for the Russian railway monopoly.

The idea of connecting the United States and Russia may look attractive on a map and ring with political symbolism, but the vast distances to the closest population centers on both sides of the straits may make the proposal economically unviable.

A Russian government source said he doubted the project would get full support at an intergovernmental level.

“I remember there was a plan to change the flow of rivers in Soviet times. It was never implemented though. To be honest, anyone who look at the map will realize that the project is too hard to implement,” he said.

Both Russia and the United States would need to build thousands of km of roads and rail-links only to connect their existing infrastructure to the tunnel -- which itself will be more than twice as long as the English Channel tunnel.

On the Russian territory the tunnel would start in the region of Chukotka, whose governor is Roman Abramovich, Russia’s richest man and the owner of English soccer club Chelsea.

The billionaire has spent millions of dollars on reviving the economy of the region, peopled with only 50,000, but may balk at spending a big chunk of his fortune on a project which is unlikely to become profitable in the near future.

“It is a matter for federal authorities,” said an official close to Abramovich.