Russia admits nuclear power test accident caused explosion that killed five people

Men had been testing ‘new special device’ at reactor, suspected of being cruise missile  

Jane Dalton
Tuesday 13 August 2019 17:59 BST
Explosions triggered by fire at Russian arms factory forces 11,000 to flee homes

Russia has admitted that an explosion that killed five scientists last week happened during testing of a small nuclear power reactor – as western experts have suspected.

The country’s leading nuclear official promised on Monday to succeed in developing new weapons despite the accident in what was thought to have been a failed test of a new missile.

Russia’s defence ministry had initially said the explosion, on an offshore platform in the Arkhangelsk region near the Arctic Circle, had happened during testing of a liquid-fuelled rocket engine, and had killed two people.

But nuclear agency Rosatom later said several scientists had been killed during testing of an “isotope power source in a liquid propulsion system”.

US nuclear experts believe Rosatom may have been testing an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile, which president Vladimir Putin last year claimed to be “invincible against all existing and prospective” defence systems.

The men “tragically died while testing a new special device,” Alexei Likhachev, Rosatom chief executive, said at their funeral in Sarov, a high-security city devoted to atomic research less than 250 miles east of Moscow.

An official at the Russian Federal Nuclear Centre in Sarov, where the men worked, suggested they had been working on a small nuclear reactor, work “many countries” were doing.

Valentin Kostyukov, head of the centre, which is part of Rosatom, said the test had been preceded by a year of careful work and a state commission was investigating what went wrong.

The nuclear experts battled to control the situation, but were unable to prevent the accident, Mr Kostyukov said.

Vyacheslav Soloviev, scientific director of the institute, said that their part of it was developing small-scale power sources that use “radioactive materials, including fissile and radioisotope materials”.

Although the defence ministry initially said no change in radiation was detected after Thursday’s explosion, officials in the nearby city of Severodvinsk said radiation had briefly spiked, which prompted US nuclear experts to suspect the failed test involved a nuclear-powered cruise missile.

The experts suspected it was the Burevestnik missile, one of an array of new strategic weapons touted by Mr Putin last year.

Anxious local residents stocked up on iodine, used to reduce the effects of radiation exposure.

Tensions between Moscow and Washington over arms control have been exacerbated by the demise this month of a landmark nuclear treaty.

A series of deadly accidents have damaged the Russian military’s reputation, including huge explosions earlier last week at a Siberian depot that killed one person and injured 13.

Last month 14 sailors died in a fire aboard a nuclear-powered submarine in the Barents Sea. A top naval official later said the men gave their lives preventing a “planetary catastrophe”.

Additional reporting by agencies

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