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Spike in radiation reported after explosion at Russian military base

Spike in radiation reported after explosion at Russian military base

Defense officials have shut down fishing, swimming and shipping traffic in a portion of the White Sea.

The Russian military is now dealing with a second, serious accident that has garnered international attention.

Last month, I reported on a Russian submarine fire in Arctic waters that killed 14 of its crew, including several of the country’s top naval officials.

Now, five people have been killed and radiation levels subsequently spiked after a rocket engine exploded during a test in northern Russia.

The death toll from a rocket explosion at a Russian missile test range rose to five on Saturday, after initial reports listed two dead.

Defense officials have nonetheless shut down fishing, swimming and shipping traffic in a portion of the White Sea.

The explosion happened Thursday during tests on a liquid propellant rocket engine at an arctic naval range in Nyonska run by state nuclear company Rosatom, the BBC reported.

In addition to the five dead, three staffers suffered serious burns. A nearby kindergarten was also reportedly damaged, and more than 9,500 people were evacuated.

Officials in the nearby city of Severodvinsk reported a 40-minute spike in radiation levels to 2 microsieverts per hour. Normal levels are around 0.11 microsieverts/hour.

Russia’s Nyonoksa site carries out tests for missile systems used by its navy, including sea-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and anti-aircraft missiles.

Residents in nearby Severodvinsk and adjacent areas are taking precautions related to radioactivity exposure, including taking iodine.

Local media outlet 29 spoke with several pharmacists who reported customers were seeking iodine, which can protect the thyroid from absorbing harmful radiation. Some stores reported completely running out of supplies.

A woman who claimed to work at a hospital where the injured were being treated said patients were being advised to close their windows and take iodine, according to the Russian news site Lenta.

The extent of the problem is being disputed.

The Ministry of Defense made clear that “there were no harmful emissions into the atmosphere, the radiation background is normal.” Greenpeace, on the other hand, citing data from the government’s own Emergencies Ministry, revealed that radiation levels in Severodvinsk briefly reached 20 times normal levels. Greenpeace called on the Russian government to explain the release.

…An area off the coast of Russia in the White Sea was reportedly closed for a month, but a source told the BBC the closure had been planned in advance. An official at the port of Arkhangelsk, however, was quoted by Reuters as saying that the closure was a direct result of the incident. The area is large at 250 square kilometers, or 96 miles.

While this incident doesn’t currently appear to be Chernobyl II, one has to wonder what the Russians are working on that has led to two disturbing military accidents within a month.


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Greenpeace is monitoring global radiation levels now? A trusted source? Phooey.

Fun stuff:

Here are some basic numbers to use as a guide (μSv means microSieverts):

10 μSv – The average radiation you received today

40 μSv – The radiation you receive by taking a flight from New York to L.A.

100 μSv – The radiation you receive during a dental x-ray

From what I understand the Russians lack skilled assembly technicians. Simple things people take for granted nowadays, but those things aren’t as simple as we like to think they are. For instance? High quality solder connections. One “cold” solder joint can fail a whole board, and if that cold soldier connection slips past QA? eh. Compound that with the other million things that can go wrong? Thermal shocking and crazy vibration levels? All happening within moment of one another?

Part 1: Space shuttle launches high-speed video camera slow motion views

    JusticeDelivered in reply to Tiki. | August 11, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    The truth is that Russia and the former Soviet block have always been plagued by competency issues.

That’s a big explosion. I’m amazed so few died.

Looks like the Russians were really trying to build a nuclear powered cruise missile and it got the best of them. The 9M730 Burevestnik known to NATO as SSC-X-9 Skyfall.

What nuts. Both sides tried the nuclear powered cruise missile thing back during the Cold War and both sides realized it was ridiculous. I guess the Russians need another lesson.

    I would think that an explosion of a nuclear powered cruise missile would cause the release of an immense amount of radioactivity, far more than reportedly has been released by this accident.
    What’s more, I suspect the nuclear powered cruise missile project does not exist and is merely a propaganda ploy.
    Regardless, we don’t have much information as yet about this incident so I am unwilling to opine with high confidence.

      Tom Servo in reply to pst314. | August 11, 2019 at 5:09 pm

      I’m sure you’ve noticed that the Russians are always talking about these New Secret Weapons! and how they will Leapfrog the West! with their brilliant and unforseen designs – and then after a little while there’s a big radioactive cloud and a bunch of dead soldier and scientists, and all the Russians can say is “oops.”

      The Kursk disaster was possibly the result of trying to test a supersonic underwater torpedo – or some other untried design. Whatever it was, the only ships ever sunk by Russian superweapons have been Russian. Not a good plan.

3.6 Not great, not terrible.

Doan smoke inna dynamite room.

No wonder these guys never made it to the moon.

Did the movie Hunter Killer just come to life?

Let me point out that a release of radiation from an explosion such as this does not *always* mean the rocket was carrying anything radioactive. Some of these Russian bases and rocket launching facilities have loads of radioactive contaminants across the surrounding buffer zone, so a huge blast and fire that chews up all the nearby vegetation can kick up stuff from decades ago.

A reliable isotope examination of the smoke plume will tell volumes. The US has some manned aircraft that fly through the ‘downwind’ area of Russian/Chinese/Korean tests and gather just such information which can not only tell exactly what went boom, but determine the original reactor that made the material, where it was purified, and how effective the resulting fission/fusion reaction was. I’m guessing they can do the same for non-bombs such as this, only with stealthed pilot-less drones for deniability. It would be fascinating to see the end report, translated into Non-Nuke-Geek for us mortals, but all we’ll get is probably something from USA Today with a graph.

I would find it hard to believe that the Russians were carrying out a “rocket test” with a live nuclear weapon payload on board. (The exploding rocket engine could destroy the warhead, spreading radiation.) Stupid in the extreme, beyond normal Russian chutzpah.

A more likely scenario is that they fumbled the handling of a nuke and/or it had defective safeties, and they had a “fizzle,” in which a nuclear weapon detonates with a yield as little as 1 kiloton. In most fizzles, only the detonator goes off. Depending on the weapon, this could be a conventional explosive, or, in the case of a thermonuclear weapon, a very low yield fission bomb. Nuclear weapons are a careful balance of a detonator and the warhead explosive (e.g., plutonium or hydrogen/tritium) and the idea is to cause an event of sufficient violence to ignite the warhead and to get it burning before the detonator has a chance to blow it apart. A fizzle can happen when that process doesn’t work well. In this case, a safety may have been defective on the detonator, but other safeties may have kept the main charge from going off. (It is less likely that a detonator went off and the fizzle was caused by an incomplete detonation of the main charge. That would cause a larger explosion – the detonator plus a partial ignition of the warhead, and that does not seem to be the case here.) A fizzle also spreads the warhead’s radioactive materials (not, or not completely, consumed) around the area causing a radiation release. If a fizzle occurred in a storage bunker, that could limit the amount of radioactive material cast high enough into the air for long-range deposition elsewhere. It could also buffer the explosive effect, making it appear lesser than it actually may have been. (Seismographic evidence to determine the yield of a surface or near-surface explosion is highly problematic because of poor coupling between the explosion and the ground. A reliable estimate by seismograph is unlikely. Different story for underground nuke tests, which, by their nature, have strong coupling with the ground.)

“Nuclear-powered cruise missiles” would be dreadfully complex and expensive, with nothing to gain over what a modern rocket motor does. (And the Russians certainly know how to build rocket motors, NASA has been flying them for years.)

The idea that this was a conventional explosion that “kicked up existing radioactive dust” I think would not be likely. The Russians learned a thing or two about how to decontaminate a landscape and the necessity to do so. Although the radiation may be relatively low-level, constant exposure to even such dosages can be harmful. (I know the Russkies also have a reputation for making safety sit in the back of the bus, but, like I said, they’ve learned a lot.)

I also think it’s unlikely that they were conducting a rocket test in the vicinity of something radioactive (a nuclear weapons storage facility or small nuclear power or research reactor) because they’re not that stupid. And with all the empty space they have, they don’t have to be stupid. Generally missile and rocket test stands are well-located, have built-up berms around them, and can go kablooey without hurting anything nearby. (Another reason to think a small nuke fizzled. The idea that a rocket motor test was executed close to something else radioactive is hard to believe. You don’t just test a rocket any old place, nor would you put anything nuclear near a rocket test facility.)

BTW, I am a former nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare NCO, US Army. I was trained to do things like estimate weapon yields, identify contaminated terrain and find safe alternative routes, predict fallout, and so on. So I know a little about the weapons, what they do, how they do it, the effects on personnel and terrain, and how to deal with the effects.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Very helpful.

    PapawR1 in reply to DaveGinOly. | August 12, 2019 at 5:38 pm

    Thank you for the info. There are reports coming out now that is was a new cruise missile that was going to be nuclear powered. I can’t imagine why you would need a nuclear powered cruise missile unless you were planning on being able to launch it from anywhere to travel anywhere since the fuel would be unlimited. I can’t imagine how you would think you could use that though since, if it was nuclear powered, it could be legitimately argued that you had used a nuclear weapon against whoever the target was. I can see how it would be operationally useful as it would be hard to detect, since it wouldn’t have the same flight path as a ballistic missile, making it hard to shoot down as well but that would only be useful if you were indeed using it as a nuclear weapon making it a MAD policy response anyway so it sounds like it would be used as a first strike weapon trying to catch as much on the ground as possible. That may be their “deterrent” to our stealth bombers since they haven’t been that successful yet with their stealth technology.

I don’t believe the Russian explanation at all. This is consistent with someone trying to take apart an old nuclear tipped missile or torpedo in a carriage when an old liquid fuel system ignited and blew up (along with the conventional trigger explosives) releasing radioactive debris. Then there were secondary explosions.
In other words, the Russian were decommissioning a weapon long pass its expiration date.

The Russians learned a thing or two about how to decontaminate a landscape and the necessity to do so

Knowing how to do it, appreciating the necessity to do it, and actually getting around to doing it are all different things. The Russians have bureaucracies, like everyone else, and the Russian ones are probably even worse than many. Decontamination may still be on somebody’s “to do” list.

There has been a recent spike in interest in nuclear powered rocket engines the idea of going to Mars comes into focus.
Both the US and the USSR had programs in the mid 50’s but the shielding requirements made the implementations impractical.
There some indications the the Russians were trying to adapt the nuclear powered engines for their hypersonic delivery platforms, but confirmation of such.

Well, part of the explosion was a standard ammonium perchlorate solid rocket motor (large chunks of flaming debris).

    MajorWood in reply to MajorWood. | August 13, 2019 at 10:52 am

    Solid rockets go boom in a particular way.

    But there is also a likely liquid fuel component as well. Perhaps they are still playing with Hydrazine.

    Satellites have had small nuclear reactors since, well, forever. Who knows what they were launching, but the outcome could just be a combination of several regular systems going “poof” all at once.

    George C Scott said it best in Dr Strangelove:

    Mr. President, if I may speak freely, the Russkie talks big, but frankly, we think he’s short of know how. I mean, you just can’t expect a bunch of ignorant peons to understand a machine like some of our boys.

They were testing an engine? What it attached to a nuclear-tipped missile? Are they reckless enough to test near nuclear stockpiles? There seems to be something going on with the Russians. Sabotage? System hacks?

Anyone that believes the Russians use any sense when it comes to military development is not remembering history.

Russia admits nuclear reactor blew during test:

You can see from the shock wave accompanying the fireball that this was not just a rocket liquid fuel/oxidizer explosion; it was something very energetic in composition, causing a high velocity pressure wavefront.

at least from the video, this lacks a couple of the signatures of a genuine nuclear detonation–also, from the video, appears the explosion either occurred underground(a bunker, perhaps)or in a contained structure (a missile silo, perhaps)as overpressure appeared to be directed upwards–camera would have experienced the shock/blast wave long before the sound arrived–from the video, apparent that vantage point is a bit more than half a mile from detonation–as can see from the blast images, upper edge of pressure/shock wave has ascended ~ 1,500′ or so within miliseconds of detonation–had detonation not been underground/contained in some fashion, recording device would have registered blast/shock wave well before sound arrived–if warhead was MIRV’ed, could have been one(or more)of individual nuke flachettes ” fizzled ” as noted above