Russia has stopped sharing data from multiple nuclear monitoring stations near the location of a nuclear accident that killed seven people this month, and the official silence is fueling fears of a coverup.
Russia appears to be trying to hide details of the suspected Aug. 8 explosion of a prototype “Skyfall” cruise missile, which aims to achieve limitless range thanks to an onboard nuclear-powered engine, independent nuclear weapons experts told VICE News.
“This event has been hugely embarrassing for the authorities, and they're doing almost everything they can to minimize its significance and suppress information about it,” said Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. “They’re running in the opposite direction, trying to hide the details and obfuscate.”
Official data show a spike in radioactivity near the blast site that was too low to cause real danger to humans. But the lack of transparency is fueling anxiety. Russian media have reported local officials doing things that don’t inspire confidence.
Regional authorities reportedly placed a bulk-order for gas masks. A temporary evacuation was ordered, then rescinded. Russian intelligence officers reportedly forced doctors treating the injured to sign non-disclosure agreements.
The bungled response is drawing comparisons to the notorious cover-up of the far-more-deadly Chernobyl nuclear disaster of the 1980s, although so far no one is suggesting that the threat to public health is anywhere near that bad.
“It’s as if they learned nothing from Chernobyl,” said Pollack.
Officials have said that a nuclear propulsion system exploded on an offshore testing site in the far-northern White Sea, blasting researchers into the water and causing radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk to jump some 16-times normal background levels for 30 minutes.
But Russia stopped sharing data from four radiation monitoring stations shortly after the explosion with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, or CTBTO, a spokesperson for the group established to monitor nuclear weapons testing wrote in an email to VICE News on Tuesday.
Freezing out international observers immediately after a nuclear accident is “not a good look,” said Ankit Panda, an Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
“This was a troubling development that suggests an attempt to conceal radionuclide data,” Panda said.
A pair of stations close the blast stopped sharing data two days after the Aug. 8 explosion, and two sites much farther away in Russia’s remote eastern territories went dark Aug. 13, the spokesperson said. One of those further stations is now back online, along with a fifth that had a brief blackout, the official said.
The organization also released a map of the likely flow of detectable radiation that shows a widening cloud of radioactive gas spreading from far-northern Russia toward the south, over Russia’s more-populated eastern regions and into central Asia and the middle east.
While the map is hypothetical, it suggests that a radioactive plume might well have passed over some of the very stations that have now gone silent.
Russia: Your map is “absurd”
Russian President Vladimir Putin reassured his countrymen that they have nothing to worry about.
“There is no threat there,” Putin said in a press conference on Monday. “I’m getting reports from our military and civilian experts, and we don’t see any serious changes.”
On Tuesday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed the CTBTO’s map as “absurd.”
A top Russian Foreign Ministry official noted that sharing data with the CTBTO is “purely voluntary” for Russia, since several signatories — including the U.S. — haven’t ratified the corresponding treaty.
Russia may be attempting to stop Western officials from learning more about its weapons program by reading data from the explosion, or alternatively, attempting to stop panic from spreading among the broader population, experts said.
But that lack of transparency, however, is prompting both criticism and attempts by outsiders to piece together the details of what happened from outside sources.
The week after the blast, local authorities announced an auction for over 1,000 gas masks, Russia’s Open Media news outlet reported, although it cited an anonymous local official insisting the order was a routine replenishment of supplies.
Filling the information vacuum, a local ecologist from the town of Severodvinsk named Alexei Klimmov warned locals not to eat any fish caught near the offshore nuclear blast area.
“I advise people not to go fishing in Dvina Bay,” he told Russian outlet Real Time.
Doctors at the regional Arkhangelsk Regional Clinical Hospital weren’t informed that three bodies arriving in plastic sheets might be radioactive, according to The Moscow Times.
The next day, officials from Russia’s fearsome FSB intelligence agency arrived at the hospital to make the doctors sign non-disclosure agreements, the paper said, citing unnamed local doctors.
One of those doctors told the paper that a recent tweet by the creator of the recent HBO miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster, Craig Mazin, had been exactly right.
Two days after the blast, Mazin tweeted: “It’s happening again.”
Cover: This video grab from RU-RTR Russian television on Thursday, March 1, 2018, purports to show the launch of what President Vladimir Putin said is Russia's new nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile. President Vladimir Putin declared Thursday that Russia has developed a range of new nuclear weapons, claiming they can't be intercepted by enemy. (RU-RTR Russian Television via YouTube)