Dmitry Dub/Associated Press
Evidence is mounting that Russia may be trying to cover up a tragic nuclear accident after a mysterious blast on August 8 killed at least seven people at a Russian naval weapons site.
Russia has declined to say exactly what caused the deadly blast. But doctors who treated injured patients reportedly were not told of radiation risks, and authorities are said to have destroyed hospital records.
Four nuclear monitoring sites near the testing range mysteriously went offline shortly after the deadly blast, something an expert called "a very odd coincidence."
Western experts and intelligence officials believe the Nyonoksa explosion was caused by a failed test of the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, a very dangerous doomsday weapon that NATO calls the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
All signs seem to point to a classic cover-up of a suspected nuclear accident, which Russia has a long history of trying to bury.
Evidence is mounting that Russia may be trying to cover up a tragic nuclear accident after a mysterious explosion killed at least seven people at a Russian naval weapons testing range earlier this month.
Something — Russia has not said exactly what — mysteriously exploded at the Nyonoksa testing range on Russia's northern coast on August 8, and in the aftermath a nearby town experienced a spike in radiation levels. Days later, local officials ordered an evacuation, only to cancel it a few hours later.
Doctors who treated the Russian engineers injured in the explosion were not informed that their patients were radioactive, The Moscow Times reported on Friday. After providing treatment, one doctor was found to have a radioactive isotope in their muscle tissue, the newspaper said.
Furthermore, four nuclear monitoring sites nearby strangely went offline after the deadly Nyonoksa explosion. All signs are pointing to a classic Russian cover-up.
Russia's initial explanation for the explosion doesn't make sense
Russian media initially reported that a "liquid propellant jet engine" exploded during testing. Western experts and intelligence officials aren't buying that, as it doesn't explain the radiation spike.
The explosion is believed to have occurred during a test of the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, a superweapon that NATO calls the SSC-X-9 Skyfall. US President Donald Trump, in a tweet last week that was without context, referred to the incident as the "'Skyfall' explosion."
Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted last year that the Burevestnik would be "invincible" and that it would have "an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception."
But so far, Russia has had little success in making the one-of-a-kind weapon work. The US had a similar project in the 1960s — Project Pluto — but decided to pass on it because it was considered too dangerous, as well as too difficult to actually develop into a reliable weapon.
Following initial reports from state media, Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear agency, said that Russia was working on new weapons when the explosion occurred, adding that this sort of thing "happens when testing new technologies." The Kremlin said the same, telling reporters that "accidents, unfortunately, happen."
Putin said on Monday that there was no threat and that experts were monitoring the situation and taking preventive measures to avoid surprises.
Russia referred to those who were killed in the accident as "national heroes." It said the same when 14 Russian sailors died in a mysterious fire aboard a top-secret nuclear-powered submarine last month. But the details of their purported heroism are being buried and kept a secret, from both the Russian people and the rest of the world.
Hospital staff members were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements
In addition to doctors not being informed of the radiation risks, the hospital's medical staff members were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, and the Russian security service is said to have deleted the hospital records, The Moscow Times reported.
Russian state media, citing the Ministry of Defense, initially reported that two specialists had died. Later, Rosatom said five engineers had died in the explosion, bringing the death toll to seven. It remains unclear how many were injured or exposed to possibly harmful levels of radiation.
'A very odd coincidence'
The abrupt cessation of nuclear monitoring activities has raised more red flags.
Lassina Zerbo, the head of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, told The Wall Street Journal that the facilities said they were having "communication & network issues."
Daryl Kimball, the executive director for the Arms Control Association, called it "a very odd coincidence," telling The Journal that the Russians were probably trying to "obscure the technical details of the missile-propulsion system they are trying and failing to develop."
And as Stephen Blank, a former professor of Russian national security studies at the US Army War College, said in an op-ed article for The Hill last week, Russia tends to object to transparency when dealing with nuclear accidents, with not just Chernobyl but several other tragic incidents during the Cold War and even now.