A pair of pontoon barges suspected of being doused in radioactivity during a deadly nuclear missile accident in Russia washed up on a local beach three weeks ago, where they’ve reportedly been leaking radiation into the sea and sand ever since.
They landed near the mouth of the Verkhovka river, at a spot once popular with locals as a seaside hangout on Russia’s far-northern coast, and have been sitting there with no official warning signs beyond a dirty red shirt stretched between two wooden poles, according to a report on local television station Belomorkanal.
Radiation measurements as high as eight times normal background levels were taken on Aug. 31 from a distance of 150 meters, while earlier tests soon after the pontoons arrived peaked as high as 38 times normal, the outlet said. Those levels are still well short of life-threatening, but measurements closer to the barges haven’t been made.
“No idiots could be found to check the levels on the pontoons themselves without protection,” the local TV presenter deadpanned during a broadcast Monday.
Radioactive barges on a holiday beach are just the latest unsettling incident to arise after a deadly nuclear accident in Russia’s far north on Aug. 8, widely believed to have been a result of the country’s secretive Skyfall nuclear missile program.
Russian President Vladimir Putin personally unveiled Skyfall last year as a crucial part of Russia’s new “invincible” arsenal of nuclear weapons. The project aims to field a cruise missile with effectively unlimited range thanks to an onboard nuclear engine.
But some two-dozen Russians have been killed or injured in accidents involving high-tech, secretive nuclear military gear since July, in what outside military and nuclear experts say appears to be a deadly trend linked to a new arms race between the U.S. and Russia.
The Aug. 8 explosion killed seven people and sent radiation readings in the local city of Severodvinsk spiking up roughly 16 times normal levels. The blast occurred during a mission to recover a missile from the ocean floor, a U.S. intelligence assessment reportedly concluded.
One of the two barges washed up at the mouth of the Verkhovka River a day after the explosion, on Aug. 9. The other was left there by tugboats four days later, Belomorkanal reported.
Readings taken on Saturday, Aug. 31 measured from 70 to 186 microroentgen per hour. Earlier measurements in August peaked at 750 microroentgen per hour. Normal local background levels in the area are closer to 20 microroentgen per hour, according to Greenpeace.
Those tests don’t yet indicate a serious danger to locals, Dr. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey told VICE News. But there’s not enough data yet to know what the levels are like on the barges themselves.
“It is important not to be exposed for too long, but a short dose is not life threatening,” he wrote in an email. “However, I hope that the dose is much lower in the population centers nearby.”