Mystery over Russian ‘superweapon’ deepens
Weapons experts have raised questions about whether Russia is hiding a deadly nuclear superweapon following a series of strange events including a fatal explosion, spike in radiation and a reversed evacuation order in the country.
On Tuesday, the Russian military backflipped on an order to evacuate the remote village of Nyonoksa on the White Sea, near a Navy testing range.
Residents were told to temporarily evacuate, citing unspecified activities at the range. But just a few hours later the military claimed the planned activities were no longer going ahead and the evacuation was cancelled.
Local media in Severodvinsk said Nyonoksa residents regularly receive similar temporary evacuation orders usually timed to tests at the range.
First, Russia appears to have recently moved SSC-X-9 testing to Nenoksa. In the past year, Russia built a launch area that closely resembles the one removed from Novaya Zemlya with a shelter on rails. (Also, blue shipping containers!) pic.twitter.com/yMCDVFt51t— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) August 10, 2019
The bungled evacuation warning came days after a missile exploded at the Nyonoksa test site, killing five nuclear scientists and two defence personnel.
On August 8 an explosion was detected leading state nuclear agency Rosatom to claim a rocket's fuel caught fire during a test, causing it to detonate.
Rosatom initially claimed two people had been killed and six had been injured in the blast but insisted no radiation had been released.
Just days later, after a spike in radiation levels was detected, the agency admitted the explosion occurred during a test of "nuclear isotope power source".
Rosatom also said more people had been killed than initially reported, with five of its nuclear engineers dead.
"The death of our staff members is a bitter loss for the nuclear centre and the Rosatom state corporation. The researchers are national heroes," the institute's scientific director Vyacheslav Solovyev said.
"They were the elite of the Russian federal nuclear centre and sometimes they were carrying out tests in extremely difficult conditions."
After the explosion, the Severodvinsk city administration said the radiation level rose to 2 microsieverts per hour for about 30 minutes before returning to the area's natural level of 0.1 microsieverts per hour.
Children were sent home from school and the 185,000 residents of Severodvinsk were warned to stay in doors and close the windows.
Residents rushed to buy doses of iodine, which is known to limit the damage caused by radiation exposure.
Unconfirmed videos also surfaced the day of the explosion showing medical personnel in hazmat suits responding to the incident, along with ambulances wrapped in plastic tarps.
#Архангельск прямо сейчас. Ранее в регионе произошел взрыв на военной базе, а экстренные службы отметили превышение уровня радиации. Теперь больных привозят в костюмах радиационной защиты via #Telegram #Mash pic.twitter.com/RUKgujx5tU— АНО Беллона (@Bellona_murman) August 8, 2019
Russian authorities have also closed part of Dvina Bay on the White Sea to shipping for at least 30 days.
There are suggestions this could be an attempt to prevent people from witnessing an operation to recover the missile debris.
"The military's desire to keep a tight lid on information about armed forces … has led to vitally important information being hidden from the public in a critical situation," independent military analyst Alexander Golts said in a commentary.
The type of rocket has not been officially named but many observers have suggested it was likely the Burevestnik (Petrel).
This nuclear-powered cruise missile, named Skyfall by NATO, was revealed by President Vladimir Putin during a speech in March 2018 as one of his doomsday weapons.
Experts have said a failed test of this missile would explain why there was a spike in radiation and the secrecy around the incident.
President Donald Trump backed that theory Monday, tweeting, "the United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian 'Skyfall' explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!"
The Defence Ministry's decision to release very little information about the explosion led many to draw similarities to the Chernobyl disaster.
When reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded and burned on April 26, 1986, Soviet leaders initially tried to hide the disaster from the public and it took them days to acknowledge the full scale of the world's worst nuclear accident.
"It's shocking when people who live there, let alone us, have no idea what really happened," Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel prize-winning author who wrote a book containing first-hand accounts of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
"It looks like we haven't learned the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima."
ARMS RACE FEARS
Mystery over what happened at the Nyonoksa test site comes against fears of a new arms race between the US and Russia after the Cold War era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty collapsed.
However the risks of developing a nuclear missile are immense, particularly for scientists and operators involved who essentially need to reduce the scale of a nuclear reactor so it can be put on a missile, AFP reports.
A former chief of a French intelligence service, who asked not to be named, told AFP that such safety considerations would normally act as a brake on the development of the weapons.
But "Russia does not respect the same security guidelines because they consider them to be too heavy," he said, noting that France only used nuclear reactors in submarines and its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.
"Overall, is it worth it? We thought not and we are not the only ones."
- With AP, AFP