Soviet Navy left 20 nuclear warheads in bay of
March 19, 2005
(For personal use only)
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
"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
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."