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Possible nuclear catastrophe in Russia under tight Kremlin control

Conflicting official statements about the Arkhangelsk explosion and strategic information control was reminiscent of a bygone era.

September 19, 2019 - Givi Gigitashvili - Articles and Commentary

2nd Arkhangelsk United Aviation Division Mil Mi-26T. Photo: Igor Dvurekov (cc) wikimedia.org

After a major explosion at a Russian missile test site resulted in a brief elevation in radiation levels, Russian officials responded by issuing conflicting and incomplete explanations and deliberately controlling access to information.

In the absence of clear communication from Russian authorities, many commentators speculated about the cause of the disaster. Some claimed that the accident was related to the development of a new nuclear-powered cruise missile. Others argued that it was a Russian space program experiment gone wrong. The direct cause may remain unknown for some time, but Russian authorities’ lack of transparency and conflicting accounts with regard to the incident harkened back to the Soviet Union’s crisis communications during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, especially given the Kremlin’s recent acknowledgment of nuclear contamination.

The accident occurred around 10:00 in the morning on August 8th, 2019, in the Arkhangelsk region, 35 kilometres away from the city of Severodvinsk, which has a population of roughly 185,000.

Map showing the region (Arkhangelsk) and location (Severodvinsk) of the blast. (Source: The Moscow Times/archive via Google Maps)

Shortly after the accident, Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) published a press release that read:

“An explosion and fire ignition took place while testing a liquid rocket propulsion system at a test site of the Russian Ministry of Defense in the Arkhangelsk region. Six employees of the Ministry of Defense and a private developer suffered injuries of varying severity as a result of the accident. Two specialists died from injuries. All of the victims were promptly taken to a medical facility, where they received the necessary medical care. There were no emissions of harmful substances into the atmosphere; the radiation level is normal.”

The press release was pulled from the MoD’s website, which led to multiple media outlets circulating the text.

Headlines from various news outlets covering the MoD’s statement on the incident. (Source: Fontanka.ru/archive, top left; MKRU/archive, top right; Life.ru/archive, bottom left; Dozdz/archive, bottom right).

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) identified at least three false or strategically incomplete claims in the MoD’s statement, including the claim that no harmful substances were released into the atmosphere; that the explosion was a result of a test of a liquid propulsion system while omitting any reference to the nuclear component of the test; and that only two people died as a result of the explosion.

No harmful substances were released, honestly

Russia’s MoD stated that the explosion did not emit elevated radiation or harmful substances, but shortly after the accident, Severodvinsk city officials published a press release noting that seven sensors in the city recorded a short-term increase in radiation levels. The next day, however, the administration deleted the press release from its website, although some media outlets had already referenced it.

Meanwhile, an open-source investigation, led by nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis, spotted a Russian nuclear fuel carrier ship, the “Serebryanka”, on the bay of the White Sea on August 9th, the day of the accident. The Serebryanka is routinely used to collect, store, and transport radioactive materials, and researchers concluded that the ship must have arrived at the bay to collect radioactive fallout from the explosion.

An August 8 image showing the “Serebryanka” near a missile test site in Russia. (Source: @ArmsControlWonk/archive)

After some of the injured personnel were airlifted from Severodvinsk to Moscow for treatment, a video appeared online showing specialists in hazmat suits using dosimeters, which measure radioactive particle uptake, to check the medical evacuation helicopter used for transportation. It appeared as if the injured and the dead were removed from the helicopter only after it was confirmed that the level of radiation inside of the helicopter was normal.

Additionally, subsequent video footage taken in Moscow — published on Baza, a news channel on Telegram — claimed to show the ambulances used to transport the injured as wrapped in a protective film. Though less obvious than the protective cover, the colour of the ambulance drivers’ clothing indicated that they too might have been wearing hazmat suits.

On August 13th, 2019, authorities finally acknowledged that the radiation level in Severodvinsk had increased at least briefly following the explosion. The Russian Hydrometeorological Center confirmed that shortly after the explosion, the radiation level increased in six out of the eight observation points in Severodvinsk, while gamma radiation increased between four-to-sixteen fold. On the same day, Russia’s MoD officials notified residents of the village of Nenoksa, 40 kilometres west of Severodvinsk, that they would be evacuated on the morning of August 14th. Severodvinsk city officials, however, later said that Nenoksa “residents were indeed asked to leave the village for a while, but that this is not an evacuation”. According to the Severodvinsk municipal government’s press service, people were asked to leave on a voluntary basis and could return back to the village on their own.

The DFRLab examined the spread of narratives related to the evacuation of Nenoksa online. A Sysomos search for the keywords “Эвакуация” (“evacuation”) and “Ненокса” (“Nenoksa”) from August 8th to August 16th 2019, returned 158 mentions.

Given that the Sysomos scan registered few mentions of the evacuation on social media — most of the mentions were on “news” sites — it suggested that the broader public had low engagement on the topic. Whether the low engagement was out of a lack of concern, general ignorance of the request, or, perhaps, because the public was prioritizing evacuating over posting to social media is unknown.

The DFRLab also conducted an analysis of articles in BuzzSumo containing the keyword “evacuation” in Russian from August 8th to August 14th. Six out of eight of the most engaged-with articles were related to the evacuation after the Severodvinsk explosion, and all of them contained a narrative about the lack of specific details and full information about the evacuation from the government. Apart from that, the engagement rate for these articles was not high.

Results of a BuzzSumo scan for mentions of “эвакуация” (“evacuation”) from August 8–14, 2019. Red squares indicate articles related to Arkhangelsk explosion (Source: @GGigitashvili_/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

It was just an ordinary liquid rocket propulsion system test, seriously

In its press release, the MoD concealed that the explosion took place at a facility known for its nuclear research. On August 10th, two days after the outbreak, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) admitted that “the tragedy occurred while working on the engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources [emphasis added] in a liquid propulsion system”. Rosatom’s statement does not explicitly refer to the term “radiation”, but an isotopic power source is a generator that produces electricity from the heat created by the decay of radioactive fuel. On August 11th, the leadership of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center finally acknowledged that the cause of death of the scientists was an explosion of a small nuclear reactor that powered the military facility.

Independent Russian media outlet, Medusa, examined how three pro-Kremlin TV channels in Russia — NTV, Perviy Kanal,and Rossiya 1 —  similarly covered this topic indirectly after Rosatom’s August 10th confirmation. NTV devoted 30 seconds to the explosion as part of its program, mentioning that the explosion involved an “isotopic power source” but also that radiation levels had not increased. Pervii Kanal dedicated 36 seconds to the topic and underlined that the explosion involved an isotopic power source, but that such incidents often occur  when testing new technologies. On August 10th,Rossiya 1 (Russia 1) omitted this story entirely from its program. In sum, even after Rosatom’s statement, none of the pro-Kremlin channels investigated the possible radiation risks from the explosion.

The international Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Organization (CTBTO) argued that on August 10th, Russian nuclear-monitoring stations went silent in the Russian cities of Dubna and Kirov. Three days later, two other stations located in Bilibino and Zalesovo experienced signal disruptions.

In total, there are seven CTBTO nuclear-monitoring stations in Russia. Bilibino and Zalosovo stations resumed sharing radiation data on August 20th, whereas the Kirov and Dubna stations remain silent as of August 22. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister claimed that the country is not obligated to share information with the CTBTO and it was just Moscow’s choice to do so. Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, suggested that Russia might be trying to conceal information about the effects of Arkhangelsk explosion and its nuclear technology.

The CTBTO also posted a dispersion model of the hypothetical spread of airborne particles in northern Eurasia following the explosion. In a tweet, CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo stated that the release of the model would coincide with an investigation as to why the Dubna and Kirov nuclear-monitoring stations had ceased sharing their data.

The extent of the fallout is as yet unknown, given the Russian government’s extreme reluctance to share any data collected from the explosion.

Government officials, including President Putin, have since started to acknowledge the problem, though they continue to deny any radioactive after-effects without providing any corroborating support. During his August 20th meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin commented on this topic publicly for the first time, claiming that no measured increase in radiation levels has been detected in the Arkhangelsk region following the blast.

Only two people died, really

Finally, the MoD spread false information about the total number of deaths caused by the explosion. While the MoD put the death toll at two, Rosatom’s statement on August 10th indicated that five of its employees had also died from the accident, raising the death toll to seven people. The MoD’s decision to withhold information about the deaths of the Rosatom employees may have been driven by a desire to hide their participation in the first place, as it would have revealed the project’s nuclear component. The media also reported that 15 people were wounded, and some of them quite severely. Additionally, Baza’s Telegram channel noted that the injured were diagnosed with both blast-related injuries as well as radiation poisoning.

Furthermore, Russian authorities did not warn doctors at the Arkhangelsk Regional Clinic Hospital that they were to treat irradiated patients, for which special protection was needed. Independent English-language outlet The Moscow Times reported that a doctor who treated the injured later had Caesium-137, a radioactive isotope, detected in his muscle tissue.

On August 13th, doctors from Arkhangelsk who treated the victims were sent to Moscow for medical examination. Moreover, according to the Moscow Times article, Federal Security Service agents asked doctors who treated these patients to sign non-disclosure agreements related to the incident. Similarly, a Newsweek article on August 22nd stated that government officials had confiscated the medical information of people being treated for possible radiation exposure.

Locals scramble for iodine despite officials’ assurances

As the crisis in Severodvinsk unfolded, the Russian MoD, regional authorities, emergency personnel, and meteorologists released conflicting statements. The confusion that ensued only fostered further mistrust of the government; as officials minimized claims of elevated radiation, most pharmacies in the area ran out of iodine by August 9th due to overwhelming demand.

The DFRLab used Sysomos to check to what extent iodine was discussed in the context of the Severodvinsk explosion on social media. According to a Sysomos search of the keywords “Северодвинск” (“Severodvinsk”) and “Йод” (“Iodine”) from August 7th to August 16th 2019, the keywords appeared in 398 mentions across all platforms in Russian.

Mentions of the keywords “Северодвинск” (“Severodvinsk”) together with “Йод” (“Iodine”) in Russian during the period from August 7–16, 2019. (Source: @GGigitashvili_/DFRLab via Sysomos)

The Sysomos search showed that news outlets were the source of the second most mentions behind Twitter. Surface-level analysis of the 202 tweets in the search showed that users were mostly tweeting about availability and that most of that traffic was retweets.

A more generic Sysomos search for “iodine” returned over 2,000 results, but too many appeared to be unrelated to the explosions, making the results irrelevant. A Sysomos search for “iodine” plus “explosion” returned over 400 results, but many of them were similarly unrelated to the increased demand on iodine. Similarly, a search for “iodine” plus “Nenoska” yielded too small a number.

Conclusion

Russian authorities’ communication, or lack thereof, about the explosion near Severodvinsk resembled — and continues to resemble — the Soviet administration’s communication after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Much like the Soviet regime did, Russian authorities withheld information about the causes and consequences of the explosion, as well as confiscated pertinent medical data. In doing so, the Russian government may have jeopardized the safety of its populace.

As the overwhelming demand for iodine pills demonstrated, however, people remain sceptical of the Kremlin’s crisis communications. It remains to be seen whether the continuing developments in this story will garner the government any further public distrust.

This article first appeared on DFRLab’s Medium platform

Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

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