Mystery Surrounds Last Week's Nuclear Accident In Russia

Aug 15, 2019
Originally published on August 15, 2019 9:39 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Whatever happened in Russia last week is still largely a mystery. Some kind of nuclear accident took the lives of at least five people. It appears to have involved a top-secret super missile. The scope of radiation contamination seems to have been limited, but still so many questions here. NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Information about the accident has been released in drips and drabs, and much of it is contradictory. Almost the only thing that can be said with certainty is that there was an explosion at an Arctic military testing site some 600 miles north of Moscow. What exactly blew up, how much radiation was released and what danger local residents were exposed to are all the subject of speculation. Even the casualty count is unclear, though Rosatom, Russia's nuclear corporation, has confirmed that five of its employees were killed and three hospitalized.

RASHID ALIMOV: The main danger is in this local region.

KIM: That's Rashid Alimov, a radiation specialist with Greenpeace Russia.

ALIMOV: The question is mostly about the safety measures for those people living there, and the question is about radioactive contamination of the water there as well. So all those questions need answers from the official authorities.

KIM: Official statements on the release of radiation vary wildly, with the Defense Ministry denying there was any, Rosatom acknowledging a brief twofold spike and Russia's weather service saying it could have been up to 16 times normal levels. On Tuesday, there were reports the village closest to the test site was being evacuated which were then denied by local authorities. A regional news site is reporting doctors who treated victims of the accident have been sent to Moscow for medical examinations after signing non-disclosure agreements.

The Kremlin has hardly commented on the incident. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman has advised journalists to rely on information provided by government agencies and insists the health and safety of local residents have been fully insured. All the secrecy may have to do with the type of weapon that was being tested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: In a speech last year, Putin unveiled a new arsenal under development, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile nicknamed Skyfall. In a tweet Monday, President Trump advanced the theory Skyfall may have been involved in the accident. Moscow defense analyst Alexander Golts calls the project a new toy for Putin.

ALEXANDER GOLTS: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Golts says, "Russia is essentially in an arms race with itself, developing weapons unnecessary to keep strategic parity with the U.S. and posing a danger to its own citizens." Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXHOLE'S "THE END OF DYING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.