Five Killed in Russian Nuclear-powered Missile Test Accident

While the Russian defense ministry said radiation levels remain unchanged, a nearby city reported spike in radiation, and residents have been stocking up on iodine

A board on a street of the military garrison located near the village of Nyonoksa in Arkhangelsk Region, Russia. The board reads: "State Central Naval Range," October 7, 2018.
\ STRINGER/ REUTERS

Russia's state nuclear agency Rosatom said on Saturday that five of its staff members were killed in an accident during tests on a military site in northern Russia.

The accident occurred during the engineering and technical support of "isotope power sources" on a liquid propulsion system, Rosatom said in a statement.

The statement did not give details of the isotope power sources and Rosatom, reached by Reuters, declined to clarify.

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Asked if there had been a release of radiation as a result of the incident, a spokeswoman said Rosatom had nothing to add to statements released earlier by the Defense Ministry and regional authorities.

A further three staff members suffered injuries, including burns, and were receiving medical treatment in specialised facilities, the statement said.

Russian authorities had previously said two people had been killed in the incident and that a nearby city had reported a rise in radiation levels when a liquid propellant rocket engine blew up at a testing site in the Arkhangelsk region on Thursday.

Authorities said after the incident they had shut down part of a bay in the White Sea, although public shipping information from the port of Arkhangelsk showed the area had been closed for the preceding month. It did not say why.

Local residents have been stocking up on iodine, used to reduce the effects of radiation exposure, after the accident, regional media have reported.

'A string of incidents dating back to Chernobyl'

Two experts said in separate interviews with Reuters that a liquid rocket propellant explosion would not release radiation.

They said that they suspected the explosion and the radiation release resulted from a mishap during the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile at a facility outside the village of Nyonoksa.

“Liquid fuel missile engines exploding do not give off radiation, and we know that the Russians are working on some kind of nuclear propulsion for a cruise missile,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists.

Russia calls the missile the 9M730 Buresvestnik. The NATO alliance has designated it the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.

A senior U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would not confirm or deny that a mishap involving a nuclear-powered cruise missile occurred. But he expressed deep skepticism over Moscow’s explanation.

“We continue to monitor the events in the Russian far north but Moscow’s assurances that ‘everything is normal’ ring hollow to us,” said the official.

“This reminds us of a string of incidents dating back to Chernobyl that call into question whether the Kremlin prioritizes the welfare of the Russian people above maintaining its own grip on power and its control over weak corruption streams.”

The official was referring to the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, which released radioactive airborne contamination for about nine days. Moscow delayed revealing the extent of what is regarded as the worst nuclear accident in history.

Putin boasted about the nuclear-powered cruise missile in a March 2018 speech to the Russian parliament in which he hailed the development of a raft of fearsome new strategic weapons.

The missile, he said, was successfully tested in late 2017, had “unlimited range” and was “invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.”

Radiation levels

Russia's Defense Ministry has given few details of the incident.

Although it initially said no harmful chemicals were released into the atmosphere and radiation levels were unchanged, authorities in the city of Severodvinsk reported what they described as a brief spike in radiation.

They said levels there had soon returned to normal. No official explanation has been given for why such an accident would cause radiation to spike.

The radiation statement put out by the city of Severodvinsk was taken down on Friday without explanation.

An unidentified naval officer quoted by the Kommersant newspaper said the accident could have occurred at a testing site at sea and that the explosion of a rocket could have caused a toxic fuel spill.

Russian media have said the rocket engine explosion may have occurred at a weapons testing area near the village of Nyonoksa.

Those reports say an area near Nyonoksa is used for tests on weapons, including ballistic and cruise missiles that are used by the Russian navy.

Greenpeace cited data from the Emergencies Ministry that it said showed radiation levels had risen 20 times above the normal level in Severodvinsk, around 30 km (18 miles) from Nyonoksa.

'Not there by accident'

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said Friday he believed that a mishap occurred during the testing of the nuclear-powered cruise missile based on commercial satellite pictures and other data.

Using satellite photos, he and his team determined that the Russians last year appeared to have disassembled a facility for test-launching the missile at a site in Novaya Zemlya and moved it to the base near Nyonoksa.

The photos showed that a blue “environmental shelter” - under which the missiles are stored before launching – at Nyonoksa and rails on which the structure is rolled back appear to be the same as those removed from Novaya Zemlya.

Lewis and his team also examined Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from ships located off the coast on the same day as the explosion. They identified one ship as the Serebryanka, a nuclear fuel carrier that they had tracked last year off Novaya Zemlya.

“You don’t need this ship for conventional missile tests,” Lewis said. “You need it when you recover a nuclear propulsion unit from the sea floor.”

He noted that the AIS signals showed that the Serebryanka was located inside an “exclusion zone” established off the coast a month before the test, to keep unauthorized ships from entering.

“What’s important is that the Serebryanka is inside that exclusion zone. It’s there. It’s inside the ocean perimeter that they set up. It’s not there by accident,” he said. “I think they were probably there to pick up a propulsion unit off the ocean floor.”

Lewis said he didn’t know what kind of radiation hazard the Russian system poses because he did was unaware of the technical details, such as the size of the nuclear reactor.

But he noted that the United States sought to develop a nuclear-powered missile engine in the 1950s that spewed radiation.

“It represented a health hazard to anyone underneath it,” he said.