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Russia’s mysterious nuclear accident is shaping up to be the Chernobyl sequel nobody asked for

MOSCOW — After an explosion killed five nuclear engineers last week at a northern Russian weapons research center, and reportedly resulted in a spike in radiation in the surrounding region, the Kremlin fell back on old habits: It lied, both about the number of dead and about the radiation.

Contradictory information out of Moscow and local authorities sparked public fears of a government cover-up of a more serious nuclear accident. Pharmacies in the cities of Arkhangelsk and Severodvinsk reported a run on iodine tablets as costumers bought up supplies believed to reduce the thyroid gland’s intake of radioactive iodine.

By Monday, American intelligence officials seemed to confirm skeptics’ fears when their reports suggested the explosion could have involved a nuclear-propelled cruise missile.

Still, five days after the mysterious accident, the Kremlin has yet to be forthcoming. It raises the question: Has Russia learned anything about transparency since Chernobyl?


“Hiding information about disasters is a long tradition of the Kremlin,” said Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University Under the Russian Government, a state university. “But now it can have serious sociopolitical consequences.”

Few facts are known about what really happened in Thursday’s explosion.

The story went public early that morning, when the Russian state news agency Tass reported a spike in radiation levels following an explosion at a military training ground near Severodvinsk in the northern Arkhangelsk region.

From there, official reports slowly began trickling in, only to be denied or contradicted hours later. Local residents posted photos of radiation monitors on social media, despite official statements that there was no reason to be concerned about exposure.

The next day, the Russian Ministry of Defense admitted something went wrong, but gave few details, saying only that it was testing a rocket engine.

On Friday, Rosatom, the Russian state agency for …read more

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