Evac­u­a­tion or­der for Rus­sian vil­lage adds to fears af­ter nu­clear ac­ci­dent

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DREW E. KRAMER MOSCOW

Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties Tues­day an­nounced the evac­u­a­tion of the vil­lage near­est to the site of a nu­clear ac­ci­dent in north­ern Russia, sug­gest­ing dan­gers more grave than ini­tially reported.

The still-mys­te­ri­ous episode last week killed seven peo­ple and re­leased ra­di­a­tion, ap­par­ently when a small nu­clear re­ac­tor mal­func­tioned dur­ing a test of a novel type of mis­sile near a naval-weapons test­ing site.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials have re­leased a flurry of mis­lead­ing or in­com­plete state­ments play­ing down the sever­ity of the ac­ci­dent, which the mil­i­tary first reported Thurs­day as a fire in­volv­ing a liq­uid-fu­elled rocket en­gine. It was not un­til Sun­day that Rus­sian sci­en­tists con­ceded that a re­ac­tor had re­leased ra­di­a­tion dur­ing a test on an off­shore plat­form in the White Sea.

That pattern of murk­i­ness con­tin­ued Tues­day, as news re­ports and of­fi­cial state­ments of­fered only the vaguest ex­pla­na­tion for the evac­u­a­tion and hours later seemed to in­di­cate that it had been called off. Still, the pos­si­bil­ity of evac­u­at­ing the area raised the ques­tion of whether au­thor­i­ties see a con­tin­u­ing threat from Thurs­day’s ex­plo­sion or may be pre­par­ing to re­trieve the ra­dioac­tive source, po­ten­tially pos­ing new dan­gers.

On Satur­day, Tass, a state news agency, cited an un­named of­fi­cial at the Rus­sian nu­clear com­pany Rosatom as say­ing that the ex­plo­sion on the test plat­form had knocked the sci­en­tists who died into the sea, sug­gest­ing the re­ac­tor or what re­mained of it also wound up in the wa­ter.

Alek­sandr Nik­itin, a researcher with the Nor­we­gian environmen­tal group Bel­lona and an author­ity on ra­di­a­tion safety in Russia, said in an in­ter­view that the mil­i­tary might have to fish the dam­aged re­ac­tor from the seabed. For now, he said, “there are mostly ques­tions with­out clear an­swers.”

Of­fi­cials have in­sisted ra­di­a­tion lev­els are not el­e­vated and that the dis­place­ment of the pop­u­la­tion of the vil­lage, home to about 450 peo­ple, should not be called an evac­u­a­tion, a word redo­lent of dis­as­ter.

“There is no evac­u­a­tion,” the gov­er­nor of the Arkhangels­k re­gion, Igor Orlov, told the In­ter­fax news agency Tues­day. “That is com­plete non­sense.”

Lo­cal news out­let TV29 reported Tues­day that res­i­dents of Nenoksa, the vil­lage clos­est to the in­ci­dent, were told to leave on a spe­cial train that would be sent to their com­mu­nity. It at­trib­uted the move to events at the nearby base from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. on Wed­nes­day, but did not elab­o­rate on those events or ex­plain the time frame.

Civil au­thor­i­ties in a nearby city, Severod­vinsk, said in a state­ment to In­ter­fax that the pop­u­la­tion of the vil­lage had been ad­vised to be out of the area by Wed­nes­day be­cause of un­spec­i­fied “planned ac­tiv­i­ties” at the mil­i­tary test­ing range.

“The lead­er­ship of the Nenoksa test­ing range in­formed us of planned ac­tiv­i­ties of the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties,” the state­ment said. “In this con­nec­tion, it was ad­vised that res­i­dents of Nenoksa de­part the ter­ri­tory of the vil­lage from Aug. 14.”

There was no in­di­ca­tion of when it might be safe for them to re­turn. Later Tues­day, how­ever, a re­port on In­ter­fax sug­gested that the evac­u­a­tion might have been called off. It quoted an anony­mous of­fi­cial in the Severod­vinsk city ad­min­is­tra­tion as say­ing, “Yes, in­deed, they in­formed us the mil­i­tary had can­celled to­mor­row’s ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin boasted last year that Russia was test­ing a cruise mis­sile that would be pro­pelled by a small nu­clear re­ac­tor, in ad­di­tion to car­ry­ing a nu­clear war­head, fly­ing a path too un­pre­dictable to be in­ter­cepted. West­ern an­a­lysts called the mis­sile “Sky­fall,” and Mon­day, U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted that the ac­ci­dent last week was a Sky­fall ex­plod­ing.

Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties have not said that the new type of weapon was linked to the ac­ci­dent. But they have ac­knowl­edged that ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial and a re­ac­tor were in­volved in the in­ci­dent at a mis­sile test­ing range.

Rus­sian state­ments about the in­ten­sity of the ra­di­a­tion re­lease have been con­tra­dic­tory. Sci­en­tists with the Rus­sian Fed­eral Nu­clear Agency said Sun­day that ra­di­a­tion lev­els had climbed briefly to twice the back­ground level in Severod­vinsk, about 40 kilo­me­tres from the test site.

But on Tues­day, Russia’s na­tional me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal agency reported ra­di­a­tion had risen last week to 16 times the norm in that city. No re­ports in­di­cated the level in Nenoksa, lo­cated on the edge of the test range.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dis­cussed the ac­ci­dent pub­licly for the first time Tues­day, say­ing that “all agen­cies that are com­pe­tent in this sit­u­a­tion are sup­port­ing the com­plete safety of Rus­sian cit­i­zens.”

A re­gional news site, North­ern News, reported that doc­tors at a civil­ian hos­pi­tal in Arkhangels­k, the largest city in the re­gion, who first treated vic­tims of the ac­ci­dent, had not been in­formed of ra­di­a­tion dan­ger.

Af­ter treat­ing the pa­tients, the doc­tors at the Arkhangels­k Re­gional Clin­i­cal Hos­pi­tal found that their scrubs were caus­ing ra­di­a­tion me­tres to click, the site reported.

The pa­tients were taken to Moscow, and the rooms where they had lain were sealed. Then, the re­port said, the doc­tors were also trans­ferred to the capital for med­i­cal eval­u­a­tions.

ROSATOM/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mourn­ers gather for the funer­als of nu­clear en­gi­neers killed by a mis­sile ex­plo­sion in north­ern Russia. Of­fi­cials have re­leased sev­eral mis­lead­ing state­ments sur­round­ing the event, some of which play down the sever­ity of the in­ci­dent.

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