Last week’s mysterious accident on the White Sea, along with changing or contradictory information from Russian authorities, has led to speculation about what happened and what type of weapon was involved and has even raised comparisons to the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
THE SECRET TESTING RANGE
A testing range was set up near the village of Nyonoksa, about 1,000 kilometers (615 miles) north of Moscow on the White Sea in 1954, when the Soviet Union’s missile program was still in its nascent phase. It has served as the main ground for testing a variety of missiles used by the Soviet and then Russian navy ever since.
The authorities have routinely closed various parts of the White Sea’s Dvina Bay to navigation during missile tests, and the approximately 500 residents of Nyonoksa have regularly been asked to temporarily leave their homes, usually for a few hours at a time, apparently as a routine precaution during military activity.
The area has been off-limits to the outsiders, but tourists who ask for advance permission have been allowed to visit Nyonoksa, the site of a beautiful 18th century wooden church.
The village is connected by rail to Severodvinsk, a city of 183,000 people about 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the east.
First word of the explosion came from the Russian Defense Ministry, which initially said the Aug. 8 blast of a liquid-propellant rocket engine killed two people and injured six others. It said in a statement that no radiation had been released, although the city administration in Severodvinsk reported a brief rise in radiation levels – a contradiction that recalled Soviet-era cover-ups of disasters like Chernobyl.
Two days later, Russia‘s state-controlled nuclear agency Rosatom acknowledged that the explosion occurred on an offshore platform during tests of a “nuclear isotope power source,” and that it killed five nuclear engineers and injured three others. It’s still not clear whether those casualties were in addition to the earlier dead and injured.
The city administration in Severodvinsk, which has a huge shipyard that builds nuclear submarines, said the radiation levels there rose to 2 microsieverts per hour – approximately 20 times the area’s average reading – for about 30 minutes on Aug. 8. It then returned to the area’s average natural level of 0.1 microsieverts per hour.
A later report from Russia‘s state weather and environmental monitoring agency said the peak radiation reading in Severodvinsk on Aug. 8 was 1.78 microsieverts per hour in just one neighborhood – about 16 times the average. Peak readings in other parts of Severodvinsk varied between 0.45 and 1.33 microsieverts per hour. It said that radiation levels fell back to normal after 2 hours.
The brief increase in radiation didn’t pose any health dangers, authorities said. The recorded peak levels were indeed lower than the cosmic radiation that plane passengers are exposed to on longer flights or doses that patients get during some medical scans.
On Monday, Nyonoksa residents were asked to leave the village for several hours, causing new worries. The order was quickly rescinded by the military, who said they canceled the activities at the range that had warranted the initial evacuation order.
Arkhangelsk region Gov. Igor Orlov said, “There is no evacuation,” and he claimed that some reports about the incident sought to sow panic.
Officials in Norway said later in the week that low levels of radiation had been detected in Svanhovd, 500 miles away from the blast site. They stressed the level is “very low and poses no harm to people nor the environment” and added that it could not conclusively be linked to the incident in Russia.
The country’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority said in a statement: “Norwegian monitoring stations detect radioactive iodine about 6-8 times a year and the source is usually unknown. When no other radioactive substances than iodine is detected, the source is most likely releases from production facilities for radioactive pharmaceuticals containing iodine.”
Neither the Defense Ministry nor Rosatom identified the type of weapon that exploded during the test.
But Rosatom’s statement said the explosion occurred during tests of a “nuclear isotope power source,” which led observers to conclude it was the “Burevestnik” or “Storm Petrel,” a nuclear-powered cruise missile. NATO has code-named the missile “Skyfall.”
President Donald Trump backed that theory Monday, tweeting, “The Russian ‘Skyfall’ explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!” Trump added that “the United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology.”
When he spoke about the prospective nuclear-powered cruise missile, Putin claimed it will have an unlimited range, allowing it to circle the globe undetected by missile defense systems. He said the missile had successfully undergone the first tests, but many observers have remained skeptical, arguing that such a weapon could be very difficult to handle and pose a threat to the environment.
The ABC Owned Television Stations contributed to this report.