Authorities of the Russian military asked the inhabitants of a settlement on the country’s White Sea coast to evacuate the area on Wednesday morning. Locals reportedly told the Russian publication 29.ru that this is a routine exercise that happens every month and isn’t necessary related to an explosion that rocked the Nyonoksa military testing site located there on August 8.
However, The New York Post reported shortly after that the military had cancelled the evacuation “event”, leading to confusion.
Speculation has been rife that the explosion was of a nuclear nature and involved experiments with a next-generation cruise missile Vladimir Putin announced Russia would build.
Following the explosion, detectors in the city of Severodvinsk 20 km away picked up “a significant hike in radiation”, The Barents Observer reported. Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation, announced in a statement issued late Friday that five of its employees had been killed in the explosion and three had sustained “injuries and burns of varying severity” at Nyonoksa.
The statement noted that: “The tragedy occurred during the period of work related to the engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources in a liquid propulsion system” (translation by Google Translate). These details further bolster suspicions that the explosion involved radioactive materials.
Putin announced in early 2018 that Russia had plans to build a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor that could effectively keep flying as well as alter its trajectory mid-flight to evade detection and interception. The Russians call it Burevestnik; its NATO designation is SSC-X-9 Skyfall; the American intelligence community has dubbed it the KY30.
According to Vox, a ramjet engine onboard the missile would inhale oxygen from the atmosphere into an engine and the reactor would heat the air before it is exhaled, “propelling the weapon forward”. However, Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist, has speculated on her blog that this system is likely unworkable because of its incredible complexity.
Nuclear security experts in the West have been using satellite imagery to track Russia’s progress on this initiative. Jeffrey Lewis and Anne Pellegrino, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), California, told NPR in September 2018 that the Burevestnik may not be working as well as planned even though by then Russia had announced it had successfully tested the missile.
US intelligence agencies have been tracking tests of the missile since June 2016, per The Diplomat. Thus far, according to its report, there have been 12 tests and only one – conducted in November 2017 – has been partially successful. At the end of this test, which lasted for a little over two minutes, the missile reportedly crashed into the Barents Sea. Russia mounted a recovery operation next year.
Rofer wrote in a different post last year that, through these exercises, Russia could be “trolling the United States, or, more seriously, trying to provide an incentive for the United States to return to talks on arms control, particularly the renewal of the New START Treaty, which expires in 2021.” But in the absence of confirmation from official sources, speculation remains just that, even if there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest the Burevestnik’s engine was involved in the explosion.
The Thursday incident mirrored the script of HBO’s Chernobyl. As the Vox wrote (in the same article): “A nuclear explosion (albeit a much smaller one in this case) takes place; affected citizens know little as the government obfuscates the truth; facts leak out; and the government finally admits its mistakes – but by then, it may be too late for some to recover.”
Alec Luhn, a foreign correspondent for The Telegraph, began tweeting updates a day after the incident, reporting two dead at first (backed up by Reuters). The explosion happened at 9 am on Thursday. Radiation detectors in Severodvinsk city picked up “nearly 20-times higher gamma radiation than normal” between 11 am and 12.30 pm, The Barents Observer wrote, noting that this wasn’t dangerous.
An unnamed government official told 29.ru that it had dipped back to usual levels by 2 pm. Curiously, a notice issued by the Severodvinsk authorities about the heightened radiation levels was pulled down at 2.13 pm, but not before a blogger saved a screenshot. By this time, the residents of Arkhangelsk, another city about 60 km to the east of Nyonoksa, had been scrambling to purchase iodine, which ameliorates the effects of radiation on the body.
Observers also noted the presence of the Serebryanka, a radiological service vessel equipped to carry nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. Luhn reported the vessel could be spotted a few nautical miles offshore after the incident, and The Barents Observer said it stayed there for the next 30 hours before beginning to move on August 9. According to VesselFinder, it reached the port of Murmansk, 550 km to the northwest of Nyonoksa, on August 11.
Interestingly, nuclear security expects have traced the path of the Serebryanka to piece together the Russian military’s activity pertaining to the Burevestnik. The Serebryanska was built in 1974 and has been used largely to backup nuclear-powered icebreakers at Murmansk and to transport radioactive waste from Murmansk to dumping sites in the Barents Sea.
In 2017, the ship had been spotted off Novaya Zemlya, a chain of uninhabited islands to the northeast of Nyonoksa and believed to be the site of the Burevestnik’s partially successful test. Then, according to Sarah Bidgood’s tweets, a nonproliferation researcher at MIIS, Lewis and Pellegrino inferred from satellite imagery that Russia packed up the Novaya Zemlya test site around August 2018 and prepared to set up similar facilities at Nyonoksa.