Explosion at Sarov nuclear facility leads to at least one injury and radical media confusion

ingressimage_sarov.JPEG Photo: ITAR-TASS

According to an anonymous source at VNIIEF’s safety center, “the explosion posed no risk to the population of the town,” which has a population of 92,000.

The source also said that agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, were conducting investigations at the site.

Sarov, a tightly guarded nuclear city off limits to foreigners located in the Nizhny Novgorod region, was founded in 1946 as Arzamas-16 – home to Russia’s first atomic and hydrogen bombs.

It is a massive complex belonging to Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, which includes several complexes devoted to theoretical physics, nuclear physics, laser development, high energy physics as well as a construction division.  

The explosion there, according to a reading of several leading Russian news sources, was either nuclear or non-nuclear. And where some sources reported that the incident occurred yesterday, other sources made no reference to when the accident occurred, while yet another pinned the accident down as occurring on February 20.

The explosion also occurred during experimental work and two people or one person received minors skin injuries that were treated onsite. The work was, according to various sources, sanctioned or unsanctioned.

“If the official Russian media were trying to calm us down after initial reports appeared early afternoon yesterday,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of the environmental group Ecodefense, “they didn’t do a very good job – why were there so many conflicting details?”

All sources do agree that the blast occurred after 2 grams of a non-radioactive substance exploded, but no one has yet reported what that substance was, or what caused it to ingnite.

Nuclear explosion?

In what was most certainly a shocking typo, Gazeta.ru, one of Russia’s most popular independent online publications reported that “[…] environmentalists demand that independent experts be allowed to the take radiation measurements of the nuclear explosion” (emphasis by author).

Slivyak attributed that gaff in a telephone interview Thursday to the release by his organization sent to Gazata.ru, and the online newspaper’s splicing of official details obtained from the RIA Novosti news wire into Slivyak’s release.

Slivyak said that his organization’s press release on the incident contained a quote indicating that official information about accidents at Russian nuclear installations – most recently the fire aboard the Yekaterinburg nuclear submarine while in dry dock – were intentionally misleading.

In that instance, the Defence Ministry reported that no nuclear missiles had been aboard the vessel during the 20-hour fire that engulfed it during repair works on December 29. 

Yet on February 14, Russian deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin, indirectly confirmed weapons were on the submarine at the time of the blaze by telling reporters the incident “was a gross violation of existing regulations for the repairs of nuclear submarines specifically with armaments onboard.”

Slivyak said in his release that, “even if an explosion affecting nuclear materials had occurred [at Sarov], the authorities and Rosatom would try to convince people that there was no danger.”

“Gazeta.ru made a sort of funny mistake,” said Slivyak Thursday.

He did, however, insist that independent obsevers be allowed access to the site to measure radiation levels.

More contradictions

Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, told RIA Novosti that an explosion had indeed occurred, but failed to mention when it had happened.

“One person received insignificant skin injuries during planned experimental work as a result of an explosion of two grams of a nonradioactive substance,” said the Rosatom source. “The worker was treated immediately. [VNIIEF] continues normal operations.”

That the work had been planned, however, was ripped to pieces by VNIIEP’s head engineer Gennady Komarov in a report released by ITAR-TASS, another state news agency, several hours after the RIA Novosti report.  

According to ITAR-TASS Komarov said the “unsanctioned explosion” occurred due to “non-observance” of workers conducting an experiment. ITAR-TASS, like RIA Novosti and the semi-official Lifenews.ru online newspaper all reported that VNIIEF was now operating under normal conditions, confirming the Rosatom spokesman.

But ITAR-TASS reported that the incident had occurred on February 20, where Lifenews.ru said it had happened yesterday, February 22.

The official RIA Novosti news agency, which initially carried the report of the explosion early afternoon yesterday, did not indicate when the explosion had taken place.

Lifenews.ru also released the report, citing an anonymous source, that indicated two people, not one, were injured when the explosion took place.

Nuclear news continues to mystify

Such contradictions and, in some cases, outright lies, are not uncommon relative to Russian nuclear industry accidents, and the practice has been on bold display for the past two months, which have seen more than their share of accidents at nuclear sites.

Initial reports emanating from Murmansk newspapers on the Yekaterinburg fire, for instance, indicated that as many as 19 people had been taken to the hospital with smoke inhalation.

These reports were based largely on accounts on Facebook and its Russian cousin vKontakte by users who had relatives and friends working in the Severomorsk naval hospital, north of Arkangelsk, where the victims were brought.

The Emergency Services Ministry fixed the number at nine injured – seven sailors and two Emergency Services fire fighters.

But the Defense Ministry was far more ardent in pushing its story that no weapons had been aboard the sub, even though Bellona investigations revealed that the Yekaterinburg had been transferred from dry dock in Ruslyakovo to the Okolnaya base, which has fixed pier cranes specifically for unloading and loading nuclear missiles.

Rogozin’s remarks on the presence of “armaments” aboard the vessel simply confirmed what reporters and NGOs had managed to elucidate weeks prior.

Officials in charge of governing information about the Yekaterinburg fire were similarly vague about what, exactly, on the sub burned for 20 hours. Official information said it was the rubber outer hull.

But photos released by a blogger and analyzed by Bellona revealed that the fire had been centered in the sub’s so-called hydro-acoustic chamber  – a part of the bow’s outer hull that houses navigational antennas that contain long burning oils and high pressure air tanks, which fanned the flames.

In early February, a fire broke out at the Alikhanov Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics in southwestern Moscow. A similar cloud of misinformation and stonewalling smoldered on after the blaze. Officials said the fire broke out among cables surrounding a collider in the institute’s basement, and Rosatom and the institute led the chorus of denying any radiation dangers were present.

But reports from official news agencies issued conflicting reports on whether the fire was indeed extinguished.

Interfax cited a police source as saying fire brigades were denied access to the facility for “a long time” before being allowed in.

State-run RIA reported earlier that that the fire had already been put out.

The institute is home to the Soviet Union’s first heavy water reactor, designed in the late 1940s as part of dictator Josef Stalin’s program to develop nuclear arms, according to the institutes website.

But Rosatom and other officials refused to comment on whether the decades-old structure contained any radiological material. The institute itself refused to answer telephone calls.

Too old to not to burn

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s nuclear physicist and general manager said this and similar situations underscored the decrepit condition of most of Russia’s nuclear industry.

“This is the kind of thing that should not be happening,” said Bøhmer Sunday. “It just proves that Russia’s aging nuclear infrastructure is prone to fires.”

Charles Digges