Russia’s Disquieting ‘Isotope’ Incident

Some things don’t change very much, even with time.

Almost three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its then-mainstay, Russia, is engaged in the same sort of information manipulation that characterized the Soviet era.

On August 8, an explosion shook a military site in far northwest Russia on the White Sea. Russian authorities initially said two people had been killed in the accident, details of which were not offered.

Then, two days later, Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom, issued a statement admitting that five of its staff members were killed in the explosion and another three were receiving medical treatment in specialized facilities. The fatal incident was associated, the agency said, with the testing of “isotope power sources” on a liquid propulsion system. And Rosatom representatives characterized the accident as involving “a nuclear battery.” Pressed by other news organizations, Rosatom declined to elaborate further.

The explosion took place at a weapons testing area near the village of Nyonoksa. The following week, a local news portal reported that villagers were going to be evacuated by train for a future scheduled “military exercise.”

Hours later, though, the governor of the region said that there had never been any evacuation order. Locals went to pharmacies to purchase iodine, which is used to reduce the effects of radiation exposure on the thyroid gland, which is most susceptible to absorbing radiation.

Although authorities in the nearby city of Severodvinsk initially said atmospheric radiation levels were unchanged, they later posted a report of “a brief spike” in radiation. The measurement during that period was some 20 times the normal radiation level.

The statement was then taken down without explanation.

Although the Russian government does all it can to control the “independent” media, a local news outlet, News Nord, reported that when victims of the explosion were brought to a nearby hospital, “everything that was connected with their admission and assistance was sealed.” Doctors, the news source added, had to sign non-disclosure papers.

Eventually, the Russian ministry of defense said that two of its servicemen, too, had also been killed in the explosion, raising the death toll to seven.

The danger to which the world was alerted by the explosion, however, could potentially involve millions of people.

According to U.S. nuclear experts, the blast and radiation release likely occurred during the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile.

Veteran aerospace industry reporter Reuben F. Johnson, writing in The Bulwark, a news site founded by Charlie Sykes and Bill Kristol, claims confirmation of the fact that the explosion took place during a test of the 9M730 Burevestnik cruise missile.

The Burevestnik is one of six Russian nuclear delivery weapon systems in various stages of development revealed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a State of the Nation speech in March 2018. It is unique among guided missiles in the fact that it is planned to include an onboard nuclear reactor to power its propulsion system. It is thus not limited in its range and, launched from anywhere in Russian territory, could reach any spot on earth.

Yulia Latynina, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, left Russia two years ago after multiple threats against her in the wake of an article she wrote that criticized Mr. Putin. Living abroad now in an undisclosed location, she pointed out that when Mr. Putin spoke in 2018, he boasted of the Burevestnik as “a rocket with a nuclear engine.” Now, the self-exiled reporter wryly noted, “when it blows up it is a ‘liquid unit with isotopic sources.’”

Mr. Johnson cited an unnamed retired military officer in Kiev charging the Russian leadership with misleading the public.

“Calling this huge explosion from what is clearly a nuclear weapon system test the consequence of a ‘nuclear battery’ is as ridiculous as what the people were told after the Chernobyl disaster,” the officer said, referring to the delay in acknowledging the severity of that nuclear disaster.

Mere weeks ago, the U.S. formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at the time, charged with being responsible for the treaty’s demise by violating it repeatedly.

The specter of a renewal of the Soviet-era Cold War, now between Russia and the West, is a disquieting one. The U.S. needs to maintain deterrence capacity, and President Trump indicated as much in a tweet after the recent nuclear accident.

“The United States,” he claimed, “is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia,” adding that the American military has “similar, though more advanced, technology.”

It would be reassuring were Russia to be forthcoming about its nuclear weapons activity and show that it is willing to abide by treaties limiting development of new such weapons. But, unfortunately, the Russian government doesn’t seem inclined toward openness, either with its own citizens or the rest of the world.