Image above: Satellite imagery from PlanetLabs analyzed by researchers at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation studies.
UPDATED on Aug 19, 2019.
A couple of weeks ago, at the end of July, an interesting paper was released which describes a massive multi-national research effort to determine the location and cause of the mysterious release of radioactive Ruthenium-106 in Eurasia in late September 2017. The paper, titled “Airborne concentrations and chemical considerations of radioactive ruthenium from an undeclared major nuclear release in 2017,” describes it as, “A massive atmospheric release of radioactive 106Ru ….which must have been caused by a sizeable, yet undeclared nuclear accident.” As we noted when we blogged about the incident here and here in November, 2017, several European national radiation labs quickly zeroed in on the Mayak nuclear complex in the Southern Urals region of Russia as the most likely culprit. But both the Russian government and ROSATOM, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, strenuously denied the possibility. Back in November 2017 we noted, “…no-one, neither a government regulator, nor a nuclear facility operator, nor a whistleblower, has yet come forward to own up to the accident.” This is still the case. After almost two years no-one has owned up to it yet, which is stunning, brazen, and extremely indicative.
At the time we also noted an energetic attempt by Russian state-controlled media and industry mouthpieces to discredit the European laboratories that had provided the strongest evidence of Russian responsibility, using the tools of misinformation to misrepresent IAEA statements on the issue. We then learned of attempts by a Rosatom PR agency to enlist European researchers in denouncing as “alarmist and misleading” attempts to blame Russia or Rosatom for the Ru-106 release, and claiming no knowledge whatsoever of where the isotope came from. The letter never subsequently seems to have been published, so this clumsy attempt probably failed to find enough suckers to sign it:
The letter researchers were asked to sign:
We noted in 2017 that the international system of radiation protection and accident response operates essentially on the honor system, which is its achilles heel. By international agreement, operators and national regulators are obliged to notify the international community via the IAEA when a radiation-related accident has occurred. But there are often no real consequences if they don’t. So some, like Russia, habitually don’t. Others insist that they will adhere to the guidelines, and some political accountability systems seem more likely to ensure this, but until an incident occurs we have no way of knowing how each nation will actually behave.
We were in the midst of discussing this news among ourselves when we heard about the new mysterious nuclear-related accident in Russia, on August 8th. After seeing vague and alarming news and blog posts, like this one, people began contacting us to find out what we knew. The news was that Rosatom confirmed that five of its workers had died in an accident in Nyonoksa, near Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk region, that involved rocket engine tests with an “isotope power source.” It described a radiation spike and local people buying iodine. But the Russian government itself was essentially silent. Meanwhile video of totally unrelated explosions at old arms depot in Siberia, that included a mushroom-shaped cloud, confused (and continues to confuse) people.
Once again we found ourselves wanting to respond with useable information but faced with a total absence of volunteers in the region. Currently, our nearest data points are about 525km north-northwest near Murmansk and about 550km southwest near St. Petersburg. As far as Safecast data is concerned, Russia, like the People’s Republic of China and several other authoritarian nations, is mainly blank. During a chat Ray Ozzie, a director of Safecast, bemoaned:
“…the lack of information (or misinformation) in this case directly parallels why Safecast was started, even if it’s at a dramatically smaller scale: nuclear release happened, people in the region likely just want their kids to be safe, and the news has wild speculation and no data.”
The fact is that no Russians have stepped forward to volunteer to gather data in that country. This is understandable but regrettable. Russia is not exactly hospitable to citizen activity and quite inhospitable to NGOs. It’s not clear what the risks of arrest or harassment are in that country for people gathering radiation data. The uncertainty itself acts as a powerful discouragement.
Within hours, however, the open-source intelligence (OSINT) community, particularly those that work on nuclear non-proliferation issues like Jeffrey Lewis, Ankit Panda, Melissa Hanham, and Cheryl Rofer , and the organizations they are associated with, had started gathering and analyzing the available information. Lewis tweeted a working hypothesis:
“Our working hypothesis is that the event in Russia yesterday was related to Russia’s nuclear-powered cruise missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik (NATO name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall). Possibly a botched recovery effort involving the Serebryanka.”
They had helpful imagery:
“An August 8 image from @planetlabs showing the Serebryanka, a nuclear fuel carrier, near a missile test site in Russia, where an explosion and fire broke out earlier. The ship’s presence may be related to the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile.”
So, the outlines were: cruise missile engine test, isotopic power system of some sort, explosion, dispersal of radioactive material, fatalities, and total coverup.
By the third day, more informative articles were appearing in the Western press, like this one at the New York Times. But the most informative so far has come from Jeffrey Lewis, who is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He laid out what they knew and how they knew it. It’s fascinating and informative reading, and we recommend everyone take a close look at it. Not enough is known, however, to be certain about any of it, and some informed observers are skeptical that the incident is related to the SSC-X-9 Skyfall. It could be a nuclear power unit for some other project, they suggest.
At this point, we still weren’t hearing much about actual radiation data. Except for early reports that radiation near the accident site had spiked, initially described by Russian government spokespeople as, “A brief rise of the radiation level above the natural background,” the public received no actual radiation measurement data. Behind the scenes, however, we can be certain that the network of researchers at various European labs had been consulting with each other and feverishly comparing notes. About a week later Norway weighed in, announcing that Russia had confirmed that the radioactivity was “up to 16 times higher than normal after an accident at a naval base about 700 kilometres from the Norwegian border.” This was followed shortly by the announcement that “Norway’s nuclear safety authority is analyzing tiny amounts of radioactive iodine detected in the air in northern Norway in the days after a deadly explosion during a rocket engine test over the border in Russia.” They had detected trace amounts. If Norway did, then other nations almost certainly have as well. As Cheryl Rofer notes, “In the next few days, we may see analyses of airborne isotopes from European measuring stations. That may give us a little more information….We have very little information. Let’s wait to draw conclusions until we’ve got more.” In recent days data from Russian monitoring stations in Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk has become available, which show spikes of beta radiation activity. Roshydromet, the Russian Federal Weather Service, announced gamma radiation detections from noble gases (Xe, Kr) at one point as well, but other data from them is contradictory. On August 18th, Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), posted dispersion modeling of the possible plume from the accident. He noted that this was a hypothetical model, not based on actual measurements. We would add that the levels of radioactivity it shows are all very small trace levels. Around the same time news sources reported that two Russian CTBTO monitoring stations nearest to the explosion site went offline two days after the accident. The cause is not known, and while there could be an innocuous explanation, many observers suspect that the Russian government is trying to limit access to evidence about the explosion.
CTBTO dispersion model of hypothetical plume from the Nyonoksa explosion
University of Helsinki seismologists reported that they had detected the explosion, at 06:00:28.0 (GMT), or almost precisely 9am local time. Ed Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently tweeted:
“Here’s one consistent picture. The accident affected a small reactor just after startup. The plume was not that hot. The offsite release was primarily volatile fission products — noble gases and iodine. The noble gases dispersed quickly. The iodine was deposited on the ground.”
Ultimately analysis of the available data may help understand the nature of the “isotope power source,” its performance, fuel composition, etc.. Unlike the Mayak Ruthenium 106, this incident has clear international security implications, involving as it does a weapons system under development. In fact, the Russian government reportedly justified not informing the international community more about the accident, telling the IAEA that since the accident involved a non-peaceful use of nuclear radiation, it had no obligation to do so. We expect that as the weeks pass more measurement data will come to light, but little that could be considered “sensitive,” and little if any in the way of ground-level ambient radiation readings from the Sverodvinsk area itself.
By all accounts the locals in Nyonoksa and Sverodvinsk have been subjected to a radioprotection/risk-communication shitshow. It’s a military test area, and we imagine that locals are used to secrecy. Still, they were apparently told nothing at first, but saw hazmat-suited crew carrying casualties away. At one point they were told to evacuate, then that order was rescinded. TASS has said that 20 Arkhangelsk doctors were checked in Moscow, with 91 people in all tested for radiation sickness after treating 3 nuclear accident patients. Other reports claim that the doctors weren’t warned that they were treating nuclear accident victims. These reports are all still a bit foggy, as are reports that FSB agents pressured medical staff to sign non-disclosure agreements. Video has recently surfaced of a meeting between a military representative and Nyonoksa residents. The discussion is quite heated, and although it is in Russian, Pavel Podvig has provided a helpful summary, saying that the official explained that, “There was never a warning to the locals because they were not particularly dangerous. The officer again says that there was a ‘power source’ there, but it didn’t explode – it was a conventional explosive ‘under the platform’….The locals are quite combative – hard to hear what they say, but they were asking why weren’t they warned about the test, whether one can safely use milk, potatoes, and raspberries. Someone apparently asked if it was a terrorist act.”
Several days ago, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky, in Bloomberg, discussed the geopolitical implications of the accident, in an article titled “Russia Has Failed Another Nuclear Test: A nuclear-powered missile’s explosion is less important than the government’s failure to tell the whole truth about it.” He notes:
“What happened in the Arkhangelsk region was no second Chernobyl. The reactor or nuclear generator will probably be recovered without further damage to people’s health or the environment. But the authorities should have provided a clear explanation to locals and to neighboring countries.”
All of this says a lot about the impediments to transparency of the sort Safecast tries to encourage. Russia isn’t the only example of nuclear non-transparency, certainly where weapons systems are concerned. We’re lucky that there is a vibrant and knowledgeable OSINT community than can locate and analyze imagery and social media to help decode these vital puzzles for the benefit of everyone. But particularly when accidents occur we think there is no substitute for the empowerment of locals to monitor the places where they live. We don’t get a lot of Russian visitors, and those we have met haven’t asked for bGeigies. Yet. When the time comes we’ll be happy to provide them.