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Russia Says New Weapon Blew Up in Nuclear Accident Last Week

Jake Rudnitsky and Stepan Kravchenko

(Bloomberg) -- The failed missile test that ended in an explosion killing five atomic scientists last week on Russia’s White Sea involved a small nuclear power source, according to a top official at the institute where they worked.

The men “tragically died while testing a new special device,” Alexei Likhachev, the chief executive officer of state nuclear monopoly Rosatom, said at their funeral Monday in Sarov, a high-security city devoted to atomic research less than 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Moscow where the institute is based.

The part of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center that employed them is developing small-scale power sources that use “radioactive materials, including fissile and radioisotope materials” for the Defense Ministry and civilian uses, Vyacheslav Soloviev, scientific director of the institute, said in a video shown by local TV.

“We’re analyzing the whole chain of events to assess both the scale of the accident and to understand its causes,” he said.

The blast occurred Aug. 8 during a test of a missile engine that used “isotope power sources” on an offshore platform in the Arkhangelsk region, close to the Arctic Circle, Rosatom said over the weekend. The Defense Ministry initially reported two were killed in the accident, which it said involved testing of a liquid-fueled missile engine. The ministry didn’t mention the nuclear element.

Radiation Spike

It caused a brief spike in radiation in the nearby port city of Severodvinsk, according to a statement on the local administration’s website that was later removed. A Sarov institute official on the video posted Sunday said radiation levels jumped to double normal levels for less than an hour and no lasting contamination was detected. The Russian military said radiation levels were normal but disclosed few details about the incident.

News of the explosion set off in nearby cities and towns a run on iodine, a form of which is believed to help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation. Norway said it had stepped up radiation monitoring after the incident but hadn’t detected anything abnormal. On Monday, Norway’s Nuclear Safety and Environmental Protection department said its local and European monitors hadn’t shown any increase in radiation levels.

U.S. President Donald Trump said the U.S. “is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia” and added that “we have similar, though more advanced, technology,” without giving more details.

Southerly winds and the large distance between the border and the explosion make it unlikely that Finland will detect any radiation, Pia Vesterbacka, director at Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, said by phone Monday. The authority hasn’t checked its air filters since the incident but expects to have results this week, she added.

“If it had been a really serious accident, we would have seen more radiation further afield,” said Pavel Podvig, senior research fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament in Geneva.

A spokeswoman for the Sarov institute couldn’t immediately be reached.

New Weapons

Russian media have speculated that the weapon being tested was the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, known in Russia as the Burevestnik, a nuclear-powered cruise missile that President Vladimir Putin introduced to the world in a brief animated segment during his state-of-the-nation address last year.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the former head of Rosatom and Putin’s first deputy chief of staff attended the Sarov funerals and said the Russian president decided to posthumously award the men a high state honor.

The blast was the latest in a series of deadly accidents that have damaged the Russian military’s reputation. Massive explosions earlier last week at a Siberian military depot killed one and injured 13, as well as forcing the evacuation of 16,500 people from their homes. In July, 14 sailors died in a fire aboard a nuclear-powered submarine in the Barents Sea in an incident on which officials initially refused to comment. A top naval official later said the men gave their lives preventing a “planetary catastrophe.”

Russia’s worst post-Soviet naval disaster also occurred in the Barents Sea, when 118 crew died on the Kursk nuclear submarine that sank after an explosion in August 2000.

(Updates with Trump’s comments in eighth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Kati Pohjanpalo, Mikael Holter and Justin Sink.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jake Rudnitsky in Moscow at jrudnitsky@bloomberg.net;Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow at skravchenko@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Torrey Clark at tclark8@bloomberg.net, Gregory L. White

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