Soviet navy 'left 20 nuclear warheads in Bay of Naples'

Italy has an unwanted legacy from the Cold War in the form of 20 nuclear warheads on the seabed in the Bay of Naples, left there by the Soviet navy 25 years ago, it has been claimed.

Italy has an unwanted legacy from the Cold War in the form of 20 nuclear warheads on the seabed in the Bay of Naples, left there by the Soviet navy 25 years ago, it has been claimed.

An expert on Soviet-era intelligence, Mario Scaramella, sent a memo confirming the existence of the missiles to Guido Bertolaso, the head of Protezione Civile, Italy's civil defence agency.

"On 10 January 1970," the memo read, "a submarine of the November class detached itself from the Fifth Squadron (Mediterranean) of the Soviet navy with orders ... to place an imprecise number of tactical atomic torpedoes in the Bay of Naples. The submarine was armed with 24 nuclear torpedoes of two different types, for anti-aircraft carrier and anti-submarine use. They were used to mine the area used by the American Seventh Fleet."

The Bay of Naples, with the volcanic cone of Mt Vesuvius in the background, is one of the most famous beauty spots in Italy, as well as a busy commercial harbour. The city of Naples which wraps round the bay is the seat of Nato command for southern Europe. The whole region is also one of the most seismically active in Europe.

According to Mr Scaramella, the Soviet submarine in question sank months afterwards with only four nuclear torpedoes on board, leading experts to conclude that it had laid 20 torpedoes on the sea floor.

A naval expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was highly unlikely that the torpedoes would explode. "It's much harder to make a nuclear weapon explode than a conventional one," he said. "Every single element has to perform perfectly. But the torpedoes would be a potential source of contamination. And the longer they stay on the sea bed, the greater the corrosion and the higher the risk they represent."

Mr Scaramella said there had long been rumours of nuclear minefields on the seabed, reported in 2001 in the International Atomic Energy Agency's "Tecdoc-1242 Inventory of accidents and losses at sea involving radioactive materials".

"The document includes the marginal note 'not confirmed'," he added, "to indicate that the Soviet Union had not been able officially to confirm the episode. But it was not denied, and the information was circulated to all the embassies in Vienna, where the agency is based, including the Italian one."

Mr Scaramella told The Independent yesterday that in 2004 the placing of the torpedoes had finally been confirmed by former Soviet officials.

Mr Bertolaso told the news weekly L'Espresso: "I have been assured by members of the armed forces that they are studying the matter. They said they have known of it for a long time but have lacked confirmation." The nuclear minefield was said to have been laid at the height of the Cold War, for activation in case of war and to cause radioactive contamination.

Mr Scaramella, who is an adviser to an Italian parliamentary committee on Soviet-era espionage, said he had discovered the existence of the minefield while following up an Israeli intelligence report that nuclear material had been obtained in Naples by Russian gangsters with the help of the Camorra, the Naples Mafia.

Mr Bertolaso said: "I hope we won't have to look for those missiles in the Gulf of Naples. I fear that there is everything down there, from cars on upwards. The technical people I have spoken to confirm that to find the torpedoes would be an extremely difficult operation."

But one naval source said he doubted the presence of the torpedoes. "The chances of them going undetected are extremely remote," he said.

"Sonar systems today give you a visual picture of the bottom of the sea. For a busy port such as Naples you map the bottom year by year. And the Italian navy's mine-clearing capability is very good."

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