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Mystery surrounds explosion at Russia military site

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Days after a nuclear-powered rocket exploded, killing five people and injuring others, authorities told people in Nyonoksa, a village in Russia’s north-west adjacent to a secretive military testing site, to leave their homes.

The evacuation order followed news of a 16-fold radiation spike in a nearby city and reports of pharmacies running out of iodine. A ban on civilian boats in the waters around the site added to the sense of panic. And then the authorities changed their minds: residents could stay. The village was safe, officials stressed.

But the mystery behind the explosion remained.

The chaotic response to last week’s incident at the Nyonoksa facility on the White Sea, one of Russia’s main military testing sites, and a lack of clear information from authorities has sparked a surge of conspiracy theories as analysts try to piece together what happened and how it relates to the secretive nuclear project dubbed Skyfall.

“It is simply unthinkable to hide information about radioactive contamination from people,” said Rashid Alimov, a nuclear expert at the Russian branch of Greenpeace, which has accused authorities of “disseminating incomplete information about radioactive contamination . . . to the media”.

Fear of a nuclear radiation outbreak and Moscow’s determination to keep the incident under wraps has also invited inevitable comparisons with the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy, which the Soviet Union sought to keep secret even as deadly radiation spread through populated areas.

The size of the explosion appears tiny compared with the nuclear plant meltdown in then-Soviet Ukraine. But while Russia’s defence ministry said no harmful chemicals had been released and that radiation levels in the vicinity were unaffected, data from Rosgidromet, Russia’s weather agency, said radiation levels in Severodvinsk, a city 30km from Nyonoksa, reached 1.78 microsieverts per hour — far from dangerous but 16 times higher than normal.

The incident has also heightened interest in Russia’s nascent next-generation nuclear weapons programme, as arms control treaties signed with the US in recent decades are torn up or head for expiry.

Much of the speculation has focused around the development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile known as Burevestnik in Russia and SSC-X-9 Skyfall by Nato, amid suggestions that the explosion was the result of a botched test of this system.

State nuclear corporation Rosatom has said that the explosion involved an “isotope power source for a liquid-fuelled rocket engine”, prompting speculation that it involved technology related to the Skyfall weapon. Such theories appeared to be confirmed by US president Donald Trump, who tweeted: “The Russian ‘Skyfall’ explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!”

While Russia’s defence ministry has confirmed that the Skyfall missile is under development, Moscow has declined to confirm that it was involved in the accident. “Accidents, unfortunately, happen. They are tragedies. But in this particular case, it is important for us to remember those heroes who lost their lives in this accident,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday, in the Kremlin’s first comments on the incident.

Russia remains “considerably far ahead of the level other countries have managed to achieve” in terms of such advanced missile technologies, Mr Peskov added.

“Accidents happen, yes, but nuclear-powered cruise missile programs don’t just happen,” said Ankit Panda, an international security analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

Little is known about Skyfall, or how nuclear technology could be used to power it. Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the missile last year with a graphic video showing it dodging enemy radar systems before flying to its target.

The military testing site in Nyonoksa © AP

The Russian Federal Nuclear Center, a research unit inside Rosatom, said in a statement regarding the August 8 incident that they are “currently working on developing small reactors”, one technology that could be used to power Skyfall.

Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said satellite photographs showing the Serebryanka, a nuclear fuel carrier, close to the Nyonoksa site at the time of the explosion, suggested it “may be related to the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile”. 

For now, in Nyonoksa, where military mishaps — such as an errant missile falling on to a residential home — are not uncommon, the 450 residents are staying put.

The nuclear engineers who died in the explosion have been laid to rest in a ceremony in Sarov, a closed city that is off-limits to foreigners and is the spiritual home of Russia’s nuclear weapons programme. Three others are receiving medical treatment.

“Everything is calm at Nyonoksa,” Irina Sakharova, deputy head of Severodvinsk city administration, told state-run newswire TASS. “Life goes on.”

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