A deadly explosion of a small nuclear reactor in northern Russia late last week has been shrouded in secrecy, eliciting comparisons between Moscow’s response and the handling of the deadly 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. The Russian government has offered few details about last Thursday’s explosion at the Nenoska naval weapons range and in some cases has contradicted itself. The site and cause of the explosion are particularly sensitive to Moscow because, American analysts say, it was likely caused by tests of a new type of Russian cruise missile propelled by nuclear power. The SSC-X-9 Skyfall missile has been showcased by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the key component of Russia’s renewed arms race with the U.S.
It wasn’t until the dead of night on Saturday, at 1 a.m., that Russia’s nuclear energy company, Rosatom, confirmed that five scientist employees had died, in addition to two military personnel. The announcement was the first official statement about the explosion that reportedly caused elevated radiation readings in a city as far as 25 miles away. Some Russian news outlets reported radiation readings briefly spiked to 200 times normal background levels, according to the New York Times, but those reports were quickly taken down. On Tuesday, Russia’s TASS news agency reported that the state weather agency said radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk rose between four and 16 times after the explosion. Greenpeace put the radiation spike at 20 times, while the Russian defense ministry initially said there was no background radiation elevation at all.
The Russian government’s response has been eerily reminiscent of its denials immediately following Chernobyl. Many local residents appear not to be buying Moscow’s evolving explanation, and there has been a reported run on iodine tablets—a preventative measure against radiation poisoning—in pharmacies in the area. “Some Moscow television broadcasts were mysteriously interrupted for as long as 53 minutes on the night of the accident,” the New York Times reports. “A government broadcast agency later described the disruption as a malfunction of a storm warning system. Screens went blue. A text urged people to stay at home because of a storm with strong winds, but it never arrived.” That warning appeared to be an effort to keep people from possible radiation exposure without disclosing that an accident had occurred.
The incident, once acknowledged by the government, received scant attention on Russian TV news, and what was reported has been rife with inaccuracies. “Tass, the state news agency, initially carried a report saying radiation levels were normal near the accident, which the scientists disputed on Sunday,” according to the Times. “Kommersant, a business newspaper, wrote that the authorities closed the sea to shipping near the test site because of a spill of toxic waste from conventional missile fuel, not because of radiation. The report cited an anonymous source.”