Fourteen Russian seamen have died in a fire on a deep-water research submersible. Picture: Kseniya GAPONKO/AFP
Fourteen Russian seamen have died in a fire on a deep-water research submersible. Picture: Kseniya GAPONKO/AFP

Moscow — Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed for the first time on Thursday that a secret military submarine hit by a fatal fire on Monday is nuclear-powered.

Russia issued a transcript of a Kremlin meeting quoting defence minister Sergei Shoigu as telling Putin that the military submarine's reactor was safely contained.

Media in Russia reported that the vessel, AS-31 or AS-12, is designed to carry out special operations at depths where regular submarines cannot operate.

The submarine is made up of interconnected spheres to resist water pressure at great depths. Western military experts suggest it can probe and cut undersea communications cables.

The fatal mishap was disclosed officially only late on Tuesday with the release of a transcript of a Kremlin meeting of Putin and defence minister Sergei Shoigu.

Until Thursday, there was also no official word on whether the vessel had a nuclear reactor, despite strong interest from neighbouring Norway.

Putin revealed that the submarine is nuclear powered by asking about the condition of the sub's reactor after the fire.

“The nuclear reactor on the vessel is completely isolated,” Shoigu told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript. “All the necessary measures were taken by the crew to protect the reactor, which is in complete working order.”

The fire erupted in the submarine’s battery compartment, and then spread, Shoigu said.

Shoigu, a close Putin ally, told Putin that the submarine, which authorities said was operating in the Barents Sea area, would be fully repaired. “Right now, we are assessing how long it will take, how much work there is, and how we can carry it out,” he said.

Although the Kremlin publicised the meeting on Thursday morning, it was not immediately clear when two met.

Russian officials were accused of trying to cover up the full details of the accident that killed 14 sailors carrying out what the defence ministry called a survey of the sea floor near the Arctic.

Moscow’s slow release of information on the mishap has been compared with Soviet Union's opaque handling of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster and another deadly submarine accident: the 2000 sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk with the loss of 118 lives.

Russia says details of the submarine involved in the latest accident are classified, but the fire took place on Monday.

“There has not been any formal communication from Russia to us about this,” said Per Strand, a director at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, when asked if it had been told it was a nuclear-powered submarine.

“We understand they brought the situation under control quickly, under difficult conditions, and there was, as such, no nuclear incident that they were obligated to tell us about. Still, we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents,” he said.

Russian servicemen attended a memorial service on Thursday in the port city of Kronstadt near St Petersburg in honour of the 14 dead submariners. Held in the hulking Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas, sailors cradled lit candles and looked on as priests read out prayers and a choir chanted in the background.

Shoigu’s ministry has released photographs of the deceased sailors, hailing them as “real patriots of the Motherland”.

A photograph of the tribute to them, circulated on social media,  appeared to have been hung on the wall of a Russian military facility. Reuters could not immediately confirm its authenticity, but it said the men had served on a deep-sea submersible known by the designation AS-31.

Putin ordered Shoigu to prepare posthumous state awards for the dead submariners. An official investigation, likely to be shrouded in secrecy, is  under way.