The K-159, a November class nuclear submarine with 800 kilograms (about 1,700 pounds) of spent nuclear fuel onboard, sank in 2003 while being towed to Polyarny, in northwest Russia, for decommissioning. Nine members of the 10-man submarine crew died.
"The goal of the operation is to check radiation levels onboard the sunken submarine and the surrounding area in order to develop plans for a possible salvage operation in the future," a spokesman for Russia's Northern Fleet said.
Subject to technical feasibility, Russia has committed itself to recovering the submarine and safely disposing of its reactors as part of an international agreement set up to assist with the safe disposal of Russian nuclear waste material.
The operation is being carried out under a project jointly developed by Russia, Britain, the U.S. and Norway within the framework of the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation agreement (AMEC), signed in September 1996.
The Russian official said unmanned underwater vehicles operating from the NATO research vessel Alliance would inspect the submarine, which sank to a depth of 238 meters (about 900 feet).
There has been no evidence of abnormal radiation levels at the wreck site during previous surveys, and the current operation will include further monitoring, the source said.
The Russian Navy has been hit by several accidents involving submarines. The worst of these occurred August 12, 2000, when the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank, killing all 118 crewmembers, after a torpedo exploded onboard.
In August 2005, the Priz AS-28 mini-sub with seven sailors onboard became entangled in a fishing net at a depth of about 190 meters (about 620 feet) in the Berezovaya Bay in the Bering Sea.
It was rescued after three days with the help of an unmanned British deep-sea rescue vehicle, the Scorpio 45.