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Report: Russia Nuclear Reactor Explosion Likely

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

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A few weeks after the explosion at a Russian weapons testing site resulted in a temporary spike of radioactive materials in the atmosphere, new details on the incident point to the likelihood that the explosion came from a nuclear reactor.

According to Business Insider, the blast released radioactive isotopes—including strontium-91, barium-139, barium-140 and lanthanum-140—materials that nuclear proliferation expert Joshua Pollack told the publication were “fission products,” highlighting that if there was still doubt if it was a nuclear reactor being involved in the incident, “this report should go a long way toward resolving that."

Safety Concerns

According to the Associated Press, first reports of the Aug. 8 blast came from the Russian Defense Ministry, describing that a liquid-propellant rocket engine exploded, killing two people and injuring several others. The statement also claimed that no radiation had been released; however, a nearby city administration in Severodvinsk reported a brief rise in radiation levels—pointing some to believe the possibility of another Chernobyl-like cover-up.

An announcement published by Rosatom stated that “as result of an accident at a military training ground in the Arkhangelsk region, five employees of the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom were killed while testing a liquid propulsion system.” Although, others have reported that the death count could be higher, totaling up to seven casualties.

The statement goes on to add that three other colleagues experienced injuries and burns of varying severity.

However, intelligence officials in the United States suspect that the blast was more likely the result of a failed test of prototype SSC-X-9 Skyfall—code-named by NATO in reference to a nuclear-powered cruise missile technology announced by Russian President Valdimir Putin in March 2018.

The case is backed by observers noting, on various satellite imagery, the presence of nuclear scientists during the blast (as regular missiles don’t require nuclear fuel) and the presence of Serebryanka—a nuclear fuel cargo ship—near the location of the explosion, rumored to be recovering nuclear waste and missile debris.

Regardless of the reason, Russia’s state weather and environmental monitoring agency reported that in one of Severodvinsk’s neighborhoods, peak radiation levels after the explosion read 1.78 microsieverts per hour—about 16 times the average. Readings in other parts of the city varied between 0.45 and 1.33 microsieverts per hour.

Recent Developments

According to Newsweek, Russia's weather agency Roshydromet released data on Sunday (Aug. 25) that indicated the presence of the radioactive elements.

According to The Guardian, the materials in question, identified as “technogenic radionuclides” and labeled as responsible for the radiation spike over Severodvinsk, are fast-decaying radioactive materials that, if exposed to the air, can emit inert radioactive gases. Though there was a report from city government regarding the incident, it vanished once the Russian military claimed there had been no such event. A second statement from Rosatom named the likelihood that a test involved a small nuclear reactor or a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, both associated with spacecraft.

Chemist Andrei Zolotkov told The Guardian that the materials identified belong to a group produced in a uranium-235 reaction commonly found in nuclear reactors. But the presence of strontium-91 is unusual, and there are other materials that should have also been identified. Russian news has said that some treated in light of the incident tested positive for caesium-137, one of the aforementioned materials that should have been identified.

Zolotkov went on to specify that there are likely two explanations: a failed test with an unusual reactor or that findings were a distraction. Edwin Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Guardian there were likely two possibilities for the kind of reactor being tested: a nuclear ramjet engine, which necessitates an air-cooled system, or a conventional reactor that uses a coolant like hydrogen.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; AS; Asia Pacific; Fatalities; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Nuclear Power Plants

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