MOSCOW — Two of the Russian specialists killed by the explosion at a White Sea missile testing range died not of traumatic injuries from the blast itself but of radiation sickness before they could be taken to Moscow for treatment, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported Wednesday.
Their bodies were taken to the Burnazyan Federal Medical and Biophysical Center in Moscow, a leading institution in the fields of radioactive and nuclear medicine.
The explosion occurred Aug. 8 on a sea-based platform off the village of Nyonoksa, in Russia’s far north. The Russian atomic agency Rosatom said a device employing “isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit” was destroyed. Few additional details were provided.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that a “nuclear-propelled missile” was being tested, giving credence to the suggestion that it involved a prototype of a weapon designated as Skyfall by NATO and called Burevestnik by Russia.
The newspaper report does not clarify the extent of casualties, and the information that has been reported may not be consistent. Rosatom reported that five of its workers died when they were blown off the platform into the sea; they were from the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov, where a funeral was held for them Aug. 12. The Defense Ministry said two people were killed. The Interfax news agency reported Wednesday that six people were hospitalized with injuries, three from the Defense Ministry and three from Rosatom. How the two who reportedly died of radiation sickness fit into those numbers is not clear.
Novaya Gazeta reported that three of those hurt were taken to the Semashko Medical Center in the city of Archangel, which has expertise in radiation treatment, where they were attended to by staff wearing hazmat suits. The other three were taken to the regular regional hospital. The newspaper confirmed a report published earlier in the Moscow Times that medical personnel there were not warned that the accident involved potential radiation exposure.
The patients arrived at the regional hospital at 4:35 p.m. on Aug. 8, the medical staff employee told Novaya Gazeta. They were examined in the emergency room, then each was taken to a separate operating room. An hour later, traces of cesium 137 were detected in the ER, which then had to be decontaminated.
“Doctors and nurses used soap solutions for decontamination. The medical staff had only face masks to protect themselves,” the employee said. Several complained afterward of tingling sensations in their faces and hands.
A bath caused dosimeters to buzz, the paper reported, so service members dismantled it, loaded it on a truck and took it away. Other service members cut the grass short around the hospital.
The doctors and nurses were made to sign nondisclosure agreements stating that information about the incident is a state secret. A doctor told Novaya: “They don’t understand what a state secret is and what the scope of this secret is and that makes the staff very nervous.”
Government agencies reported a brief spike in radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk after the explosion. Officials say there is no lasting contamination or cause for concern.
Four sensors in various locations across Russia that are in place to monitor compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty stopped reporting information shortly after the explosion, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal, but at least one has since resumed.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the accident had nothing to do with the testing of nuclear weapons and that the operation of the sensors was therefore irrelevant. He said the information they provide is transmitted voluntarily by Russia.
An independent news website, Znak.com, quoted an unnamed nuclear expert as suggesting that the explosion does not pose a health threat to the general population but that the sensors may have been turned off to prevent disclosure of particular isotopes that would give clues as to the nature of the device being tested on the White Sea.
An editorial in the newspaper Vedomosti criticized the lack of information from the government. “The authorities offer one answer to all the questions: The radiation level in the area of the blast is not excessive, the rest is not your business,” it read. “The authorities’ apparent unwillingness to present all necessary information about what happened and its consequences to society and international experts begets only new suspicions that someone is hiding something.”