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Five nuclear engineers killed by rocket explosion in Russia

13 August 2019

Five Russian nuclear engineers have died and three injured following a rocket engine explosion on an offshore platform in the White Sea, northern Russia. The blast, which occurred on August 8, caused a spike in radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

On August 13, the Interfax news agency said local authorities had ordered the evacuation of the town of Nyonoksa, which is 30 kilometres west of Severodvinsk, from August 14.

The Russian state nuclear agency, Rosatom, said that five people were killed and that the accident involved “isotope power sources” but gave no further information or explanation as to how the explosion happened. 

Rosatom did add that the rocket’s fuel caught fire following the completion of a test which caused its engine to explode. The explosion could have caused a toxic fuel spill, but this was not confirmed by Rosatom. The five nuclear engineers who were killed by the blast have since been given posthumous awards and praised as “national heroes”. A further three engineers were injured, Rosatom said.

The Russian defence ministry had said there were no change in radiation levels in the surrounding area, but this was later contradicted by officials in Severodvinsk where a 40-minute spike in radiation levels was reported. Local residents were reported to be stocking up on iodine pills as a result of the news.

Nuclear experts in the US believe that the explosion may have occurred during testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile. It has been reported that the explosion could have happened at a weapon testing facility near the village of Nyonoksa where ballistic and cruise missiles are tested by the Russian navy.

According to the BBC, Russia is currently testing several nuclear-powered missiles, one of which is a cruise missile called Burevestnik. The Burevestnik's nuclear propulsion would, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, give it "unlimited" range. It is not known whether the explosion near Nyonoksa involved the Burevestnik missile or one of Russia’s other nuclear research projects.

This follows a fire on a Russian navy research submersible on July 1 that killed 14 crew members. Russian media reports said the vessel was a nuclear mini-submarine used for special operations.

The fire was later put out and the vessel is now at Severomorsk, the main base of the Russian Northern Fleet.

The defence ministry did not say how many crew members were aboard at the time. Reports in local media said several of the crew were injured and taken to hospital.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his condolences to the victims' families and described the incident as a big loss for the Russian Navy.

President Putin said the dead included two heroes of Russia and seven Captains 1st Rank, which seems unusually senior for research work.

Some media in Russia cited sources saying they could have been on board the secretive AS-12, thought to be used for highly sensitive missions including intercepting undersea cables.

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