London (CNSNews.com) - The Russian Navy and an independent European specialist research group Thursday dismissed reports that Russia's Kursk submarine, which sank with all hands in the Barents Sea last year, had been carrying nuclear weapons.
If true, the report would complicate plans to salvage the wreck of the nuclear-powered submarine this summer, and thus learn more about what caused one of Russia's most sophisticated vessels to plunge to the seabed last August during a military training exercise.
All 118 crewmembers died in the tragedy, which sent shockwaves through Russia. Many were angered by the authorities' apparent reluctance to be transparent about the incident form the outset, and the tardy response to international offers to send rescue teams.
An independent Norwegian television station, TV2, Wednesday night quoted a member of a Russian commission probing the accident as saying "yes there were" when asked whether there were nuclear weapons onboard the Kursk.
Grigory Tomchin, who is also a lawmaker in the State Duma, said "everybody knows about the nuclear weapons," but added that they posed "no danger."
TV2 also quoted a Norwegian representative of a company preparing an operation to raise the Kursk as saying he had seen Russian documents marked "secret" which indicated that there were "two atomic missiles" onboard.
Moscow has consistently denied there were nuclear weapons on the Kursk, while reassuring concerned governments of nearby countries like Norway there was little fear of radiation from the two nuclear reactors, which it said had been shut down by crew after unexplained explosions onboard.
The report said the weapons were probably cruise missiles, which NATO calls SSN19 Shipwreck. TV2 said the missiles could start leaking far more quickly than a nuclear reactor.
Early Thursday, Russian NTV quoted Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo as "categorically" denying the claim.
"There are not and never have been nuclear weapons on the Kursk nuclear submarine ... It is absolutely false."
Dygalo said Tomchin's allegations did nothing but cause tension in Russian society.
The Bellona Foundation, a highly-regarded Norwegian environmental agency which specializes in Russian nuclear issues, also cast doubt Thursday on the claims.
For the last 10 years there have not been nuclear weapons onboard Russian Northern Fleet submarines participating in exercises, Bellona's Thomas Nilsen said in reply to emailed queries.
Bellona could find no sound reasons why the Russians should have kept their presence on the Kursk secret, he added, noting that Norway has been assured repeatedly on this point by the Russian foreign and defense ministries, as well as the head of the Northern Fleet.
Nilsen also pointed out that Tomchin himself has been backing away from his own claims. He subsequently told the Interfax news agency that he had been speaking in general terms about Russian submarines carrying nuclear weapons.
Exactly why the Kursk sunk remains the subject of speculation. Two explosions were reported. One theory holds that a torpedo onboard exploded, detonating others and sending the vessel to the ocean floor more than 100 meters down
The operation this August to raise the vessel will cost an estimated $70 million.
See earlier story:
Russian Sub is Flooded, All Lives Lost (Aug 21, 2000)