TWO days after five nuclear scientists were buried after being killed during “rocket tests”, a mystery remains over Russian superweapons.
The deadly explosion at a naval weapons testing range in northwestern Russia, which caused a brief spike in radiation levels, was followed by the issuing of an evacuation order – later bizarrely rescinded – for a nearby village.
Last week's mysterious accident on the White Sea, along with changing or contradictory information from Russian authorities, has led to speculation about what exactly happened.
It's also not clear what type of weapon was involved, and the August 8 explosion has even raised comparisons to the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Weapons experts have questioned whether Russia is hiding a deadly nuclear superweapon following a series of strange events including, on Tuesday, the Russian military backflipping on an order to evacuate the remote village of Nyonoksa on the White Sea, near a Navy testing range.
First word of the explosion came from the Russian Defense Ministry, which initially said the blast of a liquid-propellant rocket engine killed two people and injured six others.
Officials claimed that no radiation had been released, although the city administration in Severodvinsk reported a brief rise in radiation levels – a contradiction that recalled Soviet-era cover-ups of disasters like Chernobyl.
Two days later, Russia's state-controlled nuclear agency Rosatom acknowledged that the explosion occurred on an offshore platform during tests of a "nuclear isotope power source," and that it killed five nuclear engineers and injured three others.
But it's still not clear whether those casualties were in addition to the earlier dead and injured.
Russian authorities then closed part of Dvina Bay to shipping for a month, an apparent attempt to keep outsiders from seeing an operation to recover the missile debris.
Independent military analyst Alexander Golts commented: "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,” reports News.com.au.
On Monday, Nyonoksa residents were asked to leave the village for several hours.
But the order was quickly rescinded by the military, who said they had cancelled activities at the Navy testing range that had warranted the initial evacuation order.
Arkhangelsk region Gov. Igor Orlov said "there is no evacuation" and he claimed that some media reports about the incident sought to sow panic.
On August 10, Rosatom said in a statement: “Five Rosatom staff members died and a further three people were injured in a tragic accident that took place during tests on a liquid propulsion system involving isotopes at a military facility in Arkhangelsk region.
“We offer our deepest condolences, and all possible support, to the families and friends of those who died.
“Those injured have been admitted to hospital and are receiving treatment.
“Our thoughts are with the loved ones of all those affected.”
Testers are national heroes, the elite. They sometimes test in incredibly difficult conditions. This is the professional risk they take, understanding the responsibility of the tasks.Rosatom scientific director Vyacheslav Solovyev
On Monday, the five dead nuclear scientists, Alexei Vyushin, Evgeny Korataev, Vyacheslav Lipshev, Sergey Pichugin and Vladislav Yanovsky, were buried in Sarov, a city that hosts Russia's main nuclear weapons research centre.
The institute’s scientific director Vyacheslav Solovyev said: “The death of employees is a bitter loss for the nuclear centre and Rosatom.
“Testers are national heroes, the elite. Their work is complex and associated with danger, they sometimes test in incredibly difficult conditions.
"This is the professional risk they take, understanding the responsibility of the tasks."
Radiation levels spiked in Severodvinsk, which has a huge shipyard that builds nuclear submarines, to 2 microsieverts per hour approximately 20 times the area's average reading for about 30 minutes on August 8.
It then returned to the area's average natural level of 0.1 microsieverts per hour.
Emergency officials issued a warning to all workers to stay indoors and close the windows.
This prompted frightened residents to rush out and buy iodine, which can help reduce risks from exposure to radiation.
However Rosatom tried to downplay the incident further, tweeting on Wednesday: “Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish radiation safety authorities have not registered an increased level of radiation after the incident at the Defense Ministry training ground near Severodvinsk.”
WHAT IS MYSTERY 'SKYFALL' MISSILE?
Neither the Defence Ministry nor Rosatom have identified the type of weapon that exploded during the test.
But Rosatom's statement said the explosion occurred during tests of a "nuclear isotope power source," which led observers to conclude it was the "Burevestnik" or "Storm Petrel," a nuclear-powered cruise missile.
NATO has code-named the missile "Skyfall."
The missile was first revealed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his 2018 state-of-the-nation address, along with other doomsday weapons.
President Donald Trump backed that theory on Monday, tweeting, "The Russian 'Skyfall' explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!"
Trump boasted that "the United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology."
Both America and the Soviet Union worked on nuclear-powered missiles in the 1960s, but they abandoned such designs as too unstable and dangerous to operate.
When he spoke about the prospective nuclear-powered cruise missile, Putin claimed it will have an unlimited range, allowing it to circle the globe undetected by missile defence systems.
He said the missile had successfully undergone the first tests, but many observers have remained sceptical, arguing that such a weapon could be very difficult to handle and pose a threat to the environment.
Some media reports indicated that previous tests of the Burevestnik had been conducted on the barren Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya and the Kapustin Yar testing range in southern Russia.
Mystery over what exactly happened at the Nyonoksa test site comes amid fears of a new arms race between America and Russia after the Cold War era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty collapsed.