By Gleb Bryanski
KOMSOMOLSK-ON-AMUR, Russia (Reuters) - A senior Russian official suggested Monday an atomic-powered submarine could have been carrying nuclear weapons when it was engulfed by fire during repairs at a dockyard in December.
Authorities initially said all nuclear weapons aboard the submarine Yekaterinburg had been unloaded well before a fire broke out on December 29, and that there had been no risk of a radiation leak.
Last week, respected magazine Vlast quoted Russian navy sources as saying the submarine was carrying 16 R-29 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with four nuclear warheads, during the fire set off by welding sparks.
Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry, said that under instructions from
1986, five years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the removal of weapons is not required during minor repairs.
"Was the kind of repair that was being done on the Yekaterinburg such that it required the removal of torpedoes and ballistic missiles?" Rogozin told reporters without answering that question directly.
But he added: "It was not a medium-sized repair, when a boat goes in for medium-sized, capital repair, of course everything is removed; when a boat goes in and they say we have some small problem, it is never removed."
The fire started when welding sparks ignited wooden scaffolding around the 18,200-tonne submarine at the Roslyakovo docks, 1,500 km (900 miles) north of Moscow and one of the main shipyards used by Russia's northern fleet.
The rubber covering of the submarine then caught fire, sending flames and black smoke above the vessel. Firefighters battled the blaze for a day and a night before partially sinking the submarine to douse the flames, according to media reports.
Vlast said Russia had been "on the brink of the biggest catastrophe since the time of Chernobyl," a reference to the 1986 explosion and fire at a nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine.
It said that the Yekaterinburg sailed to the navy's weapons store immediately after the fire, an unusual trip for a damaged submarine supposedly carrying no weapons.
Rogozin, who was in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur for meetings on defense industry and military issues chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, said federal investigators were expected to report on their probe into the fire Friday.
"We want there to be no doubt, in the future, about what kind of repair requires the unloading of weapons and what kind of repair does not," Rogozin said.
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Writing by Steve Gutterman Editing by Maria Golovnina)