Russia’s nuclear agency on Saturday said an explosion during missile testing in the Arctic left five workers dead and involved radioactive isotopes after a nearby city recorded a spike in radiation levels.
Rosatom said the force of the explosion on Thursday blew several of its staff from a testing platform into the sea.
Russia’s military did not initially say that the accident involved nuclear equipment, but stressed that radiation levels were normal afterwards.
Officials in the nearby city of Severodvinsk reported that radiation levels briefly increased after the accident.
The incident occurred in the far northern Arkhangelsk region during testing of a liquid propellant jet engine when an explosion sparked a fire, killing two, a Russian Ministry of Defense statement said.
It was not known whether those two deaths were among the five that Rosatom reported.
Russian state news agencies quoted a ministry source as saying both ministry and Rosatom employees had been killed.
Rosatom said its staff were providing engineering and technical support for the “isotope power source” of a missile.
The missile was being tested on a platform at sea when its fuel caught fire and triggered an explosion, Rosatom said in a statement quoted on Russian television.
Several staff were blown into the sea by the blast, the agency said, adding that it only announced the deaths once there was no more hope that the employees had survived.
The accident left three other people with burns and other injuries, Rosatom said.
Authorities initially released few details of the accident at the Nyonoksa test site on the White Sea, used for testing missiles deployed in nuclear submarines and ships since the Soviet era.
The ministry said six ministry employees and a developer were injured, while two “specialists” died of their wounds.
Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said his “working hypothesis” was that the blast “was related to Russia’s nuclear-powered cruise missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik.
Authorities in Severodvinsk, 30km from the test site, on Thursday said on their Web site that automatic radiation detection sensors in the city “recorded a brief rise in radiation levels” about noon that day.
The post was later taken down and the ministry said radiation levels were normal after the accident.
Ankit Panda of the Federation of American Scientists said on Twitter that the missile “is suspected to have some sort of a miniaturized reactor in its propulsion unit,” and added: “a crash likely resulted in not-insignificant radioisotope dispersion.”
Russian online media published an unattributed video which reportedly showed ambulances speeding through Moscow to a center that specializes in the treatment of radiation victims, while Rosatom said the injured were being treated at a “specialized medical center.”
An expert from Moscow’s Institute for Nuclear Research, Boris Zhuikov, told RBK independent news site that isotope power sources are not normally dangerous for people working with them.
“If they are damaged, people who are nearby could be hurt. Isotope sources use various types of fuel: plutonium, promethium or cerium,” Zhuikov said.
The radioactivity levels involved are “absolutely not comparable with those during serious accidents at reactors,” he added.
News of the accident prompted Severodvinsk residents to rush to pharmacies for iodine, which can help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation.
“People started to panic. Within a matter of an hour all the iodine and iodine-containing drugs were sold out,” pharmacist Yelena Varinskaya said.
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