Russian authorities announced the evacuation of the village nearest to the site of a nuclear accident in northern Russia on Tuesday, suggesting dangers more grave than initially reported.
The still-mysterious episode last week killed seven people and released radiation, apparently when a small nuclear reactor malfunctioned during a test of a novel type of missile near a naval weapons testing site. Russian officials have released a flurry of misleading or incomplete statements playing down the severity of the accident, which the military first reported Thursday as a fire involving a liquid-fuelled rocket engine.
It was not until Sunday that Russian scientists conceded that a reactor had released radiation during a test on an offshore platform in the White Sea.
That pattern of murkiness continued Tuesday, as news reports and official statements offered only the vaguest explanation for the evacuation and hours later seemed to indicate it had been called off. Still, the possibility of evacuating the area raised the question of whether authorities see a continuing threat from Thursday’s explosion or may be preparing to retrieve the radioactive source, potentially posing new dangers.
On Saturday, Tass, a state news agency, cited an unnamed official at Russian nuclear company Rosatom as saying the explosion on the test platform had knocked the scientists who died into the sea, suggesting the reactor or what remained of it also wound up in the water. It said the medics had signed non-disclosure agreements about the nature of the accident.
Officials have insisted radiation levels are not elevated and that the displacement of the population of the village, home to about 450 people, should not be called an evacuation, a word redolent of disaster.
Residents of Nenoksa, the village closest to the incident, were told to leave on a special train that would be sent to their community, TV29, a local news outlet, reported Tuesday. Later Tuesday, however, a report on Interfax suggested that the evacuation might have been called off. Russian statements about the intensity of the radiation release have been contradictory.
But Tuesday, Russia’s national meteorological agency reported radiation had risen last week to 16 times the norm in that city. No reports indicated the level in Nenoksa, located on the edge of the test range.
The United States believes last week’s deadly explosion in Russia was associated with the Kremlin’s hypersonic cruise missile programme, a senior Trump administration official said on Tuesday.
Five scientists were buried in the closed city of Sarov on Monday after what state nuclear agency Rosatom said was an accident during a rocket test on a sea platform off northern Russia.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington was not prepared to say at this point whether it was a nuclear explosion but believed it did involve radioactive elements.
The explosion could represent a potentially significant setback to the Russian programme although it remained unclear whether it was caused by a launching failure, the official told reporters.
Russian attempts to develop hypersonic cruise missiles raised questions about whether the so-called New Start nuclear agreement, which is due to expire in early 2021, should be extended for five years, the official added.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin boasted on Tuesday it was winning the race to develop new cutting edge nuclear weapons despite the mysterious rocket accident last week.
It has pledged to keep developing new weapons regardless, portraying the men who died in the test as heroes.
US president Donald Trump said on Twitter on Monday the United States was “learning much” from the explosion which he suggested happened during the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile vaunted by president Vladimir Putin last year.
Russia, which has said the missile will have an “unlimited range” and be able to overcome any defences, calls the missile the 9M730 Burevestnik (Storm Petrel). The NATO alliance has designated it the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
Mr Trump had said on Twitter that the United States had “similar, though more advanced, technology” and said Russians were worried about the air quality around the facility and far beyond, a situation he described as “Not good!”
But when asked about his comments on Tuesday, the Kremlin said it, not the United States, was out in front when it came to developing new nuclear weapons.
“Our president has repeatedly said that Russian engineering in this sector significantly outstrips the level that other countries have managed to reach for the moment, and it is fairly unique,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Mr Putin used his state-of-the nation speech in 2018 to unveil what he described as a raft of invincible new nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile, an underwater nuclear-powered drone, and a laser weapon.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington over arms control have been exacerbated by the demise this month of a landmark nuclear treaty. Russia says it is also concerned that another landmark arms control treaty will soon expire. – New York Times / Reuters