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'We Remember Chernobyl': Information Vacuum Around Arkhangelsk Blast Riles Locals

In a video grab from Severodvinsk TV, a man stands outside the city administration building on August 13, holding a cardboard sign demanding information about the accident in Nyonoksa.
In a video grab from Severodvinsk TV, a man stands outside the city administration building on August 13, holding a cardboard sign demanding information about the accident in Nyonoksa.

For residents living next to the naval testing range on Russia's White Sea coast, weapons tests come with the territory: you get used to them.

People near the Nyonoksa site, and residents of the nearby shipbuilding city of Severodvinsk, say they're used to getting reasonable information from civilian and military authorities about when tests are happening and whether people must leave the village closest to the site.

But the August 8 explosion and fire at Nyonoksa was different.

"What's offensive is that clearly there was some sort of explosion, there was radioactive fallout," said one man who lives just outside of Nyonoksa and asked that only his first name, Pavel, be used. "Why didn't they raise the alarm, let people know what's happened?"

"We remember Chernobyl. We know what happened," he told RFE/RL.

One week after an explosion killed at least five people and sent locals scrambling for Geiger counters, there is still no definitive explanation about what happened at the range where Russia's Northern Fleet has tested weaponry for decades.

Conflicting statements from the Defense Ministry, regional authorities, emergency situations officials, and meteorologists have left a vacuum of reliable information -- and rumor, speculation, and suspicion have filled the void. An evacuation order for Nyonoksa's 450 residents issued early in the morning of August 13 -- in connection with "planned military activities" -- that was called off several hours later added to the doubts.

"No one was thinking about us," said Aleksei Klimov, an ecologist and outspoken environmental advocate in Severodvinsk, a city of 185,000 people about 35 kilometers east of Nyonoksa. Officials "weren't looking out for our interests. There was no sort of warning from law enforcement, emergency officials."

Nyonoksa residents are used to the weapons tests.
Nyonoksa residents are used to the weapons tests.

Rumor, Speculation, Suspicion

For days, social-media sites and chat rooms have been flooded with complaints and discussions from people in Nyonoksa, Severodvinsk, and Arkhangelsk. Some have posted photographs of their Geiger counters' readings from the day of the mishap and after.

"How are we supposed to protect ourselves? Close all windows and doors today. Try not to go out tomorrow, or go out as seldom as possible until the proper data appears," Pavel told RFE/RL in a separate e-mail.

On August 15, Norway's radiation-monitoring agency said it had recorded tiny amounts of airborne radioactive iodine in the days following the August 8 incident. The agency, whose monitoring equipment is hundreds of kilometers from the blast site, said it could not determine whether the iodine was connected to the Arkhangelsk explosion. But it was the first independent monitoring report outside of Russia to register and announce an increase in radiation.

On August 13, Russia's federal weather agency announced a brief spike in radiation levels in Severodvinsk in the hours after the explosion, even as local authorities insisted that the increase was within norms and advised people not to be alarmed.

Analysts in the United States and Europe have focused their attention on a nuclear-powered cruise missile that President Vladimir Putin said last year was under development.

But Russian news media and other analysts have instead pointed to the involvement of the state nuclear agency, Rosatom, which has said five of its staff members were killed. The agency said the mishap involved "radioisotope power sources," but gave no further details. Its involvement suggested tests on something other than a new missile.

Directors of the research institute where the scientists worked, in the city of Sarov, hundreds of kilometers to the south, said they had been studying "small-scale sources of energy using fissile materials."

The matters of how much radiation was released and where have been particularly troubling for residents of the region. Pharmacies in Severodvinsk reported panic buying of iodine drops in the hours after the incident.

People in Severodvinsk are angry at the lack of concrete information.
People in Severodvinsk are angry at the lack of concrete information.

'How Dangerous Is This?'

The lack of information has been even more troubling for doctors and emergency medical workers who were first to respond to the incident and treat victims. Several dozen medical staff from the Arkhangelsk regional hospital have been sent to Moscow for evaluation, and some involved in the emergency response have reportedly been asked to sign nondisclosure agreements.

In a post on a chat room on the Russian social-media site VKontake, a woman who identified herself as Anya Kaminskaya and said she was a doctor specializing in pulmonary medicine, said medical workers had been told nothing about possible radiation exposure, and no proper decontamination protocols had been followed.

"I don't know who is to blame or who should be punished," she wrote. "At least representatives of the Ministry of Health could not explain anything to us, and they themselves don't know how it happened. And since I did not participate in the emergency response for victims, I did not sign any nondisclosure papers."

Kaminskaya did not respond to messages sent via social media. A woman who answered the phone at the hospital pulmonology unit said she would relay a message to Kaminskaya.

People are afraid to go into the woods to gather mushrooms or berries. People are afraid to go their dachas.

One unidentified employee from the Arkhangelsk hospital told the Arkhangelsk news site on August 15 that the hospital's main operating room was shuttered for six days and sealed off to staff and employees.

"At the time when the victims were brought in, doctors were not warned that they were irradiated people. Only after some time were [medical workers] given lead aprons, but this was no longer a defense. People are worried," the employee was quoted as saying.

Evacuations occur regularly at Nyonoksa due to weapons tests, Pavel told RFE/RL, and residents are accustomed to them. The evacuation order that was issued earlier this week and then quickly rescinded was unusual because of the quick reversal and also because it involved a special train that was unlikely to have been able to take all the residents.

Nyonoksa residents have also reported that medical personnel from Moscow wearing military uniforms have turned up in the village, recording the names of people who were in the village on the day of the incident, according to the news site

"Radiation isn't simply a piece of dirt or grime where you just wash it off with a cloth and forget about it," another Severodvinsk resident, Nikolai Druzhinin, said in televised remarks. "Can people go into the woods freely or not to gather mushrooms, eat berries. [Can they] drink water from the faucet. How dangerous this is or not, we still don't know."

Commercial shipping in the Dvina Bay, where Nyonoksa and Severodvinsk are located, has been ordered restricted for several weeks, reportedly due to the presence of a highly toxic rocket fuel.

Emergency officials have repeatedly tried to reassure people that radiation was short-lived and harmless. Still, ecologist Klimov said he had been bombarded with queries from people worried about whether they can go to their country homes.

"People are afraid to go into the woods to gather mushrooms or berries. People are afraid to go their dachas," he said. "I tell them there's nothing to worry about."

"But fish? Don't eat it under any circumstances," he said. "At least for now."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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