>> Andrew E Kramer, The New York Times
Published: 2019-08-14 10:42:31 BdST
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-fueled 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 later seemed to indicate that 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 the Russian nuclear company Rosatom as saying that 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.
Aleksandr Nikitin, a researcher with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona and an authority on radiation safety in Russia, said in an interview that the military might have to fish the damaged reactor from the seabed. For now, he said, “there are mostly questions without clear answers.”
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.
“There is no evacuation,” the governor of the Arkhangelsk region, Igor Orlov, told the Interfax news agency Tuesday. “That is complete nonsense.”
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. It attributed the move to events at the nearby base from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Wednesday but did not elaborate on those events or explain the time frame.
Civil authorities in a nearby city, Severodvinsk, said in a statement to Interfax that the population of the village had been advised to be out of the area by Wednesday because of unspecified “planned activities” at the military testing range.
“The leadership of the Nenoksa testing range informed us of planned activities of the military authorities,” the statement said. “In this connection, it was advised that residents of Nenoksa depart the territory of the village from Aug. 14.”
There was no indication when it might be safe for them to return.
Later Tuesday, however, a report on Interfax suggested that the evacuation might have been called off. It quoted an anonymous official in the Severodvinsk city administration as saying, “Yes, indeed, they informed us the military had canceled tomorrow’s activities.”
President Vladimir Putin boasted last year that Russia was testing a cruise missile that would be propelled by a small nuclear reactor, in addition to carrying a nuclear warhead, flying a path too unpredictable to be intercepted. Western analysts called the missile “Skyfall,” and Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted that the accident last week was a Skyfall exploding.
Russian authorities have not said that the new type of weapon was linked to the accident. But they have acknowledged that radioactive material and a reactor were involved in the incident at a missile testing range.
Russian statements about the intensity of the radiation release have been contradictory. Scientists with the Russian Federal Nuclear Agency said Sunday that radiation levels had climbed briefly to twice the background level in Severodvinsk, about 25 miles from the test site.
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.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, discussed the accident publicly for the first time Tuesday, saying that “all agencies that are competent in this situation are supporting the complete safety of Russian citizens.”
A regional news site, Northern News, reported that doctors at a civilian hospital in Arkhangelsk, the largest city in the region, who first treated victims of the accident, had not been informed of radiation danger.
After treating the patients, the doctors at the Arkhangelsk Regional Clinical Hospital found that their scrubs were causing radiation meters to click, the site reported.
The patients were taken to Moscow, and the rooms where they had lain were sealed. Then, the report said, the doctors were also transferred to the capital for medical evaluations.
Hospital employees “are in a depressed state,” the site said. “They don’t understand why doctors and nurses who were fulfilling their professional duties were treated in this way.”
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