In Russia, days of fake news and real radiation after deadly explosion

A picture taken on Nov 9, 2011, shows buildings at a military base in the small town of Nyonoska in Arkhangelsk region, Russia.
A picture taken on Nov 9, 2011, shows buildings at a military base in the small town of Nyonoska in Arkhangelsk region, Russia.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - In online posts and calls to local officials, Russians on Monday (Aug 12) expressed anger that the explosion of a small nuclear reactor at a military test site last week has gone unacknowledged for days by their government.

"Even if it is not as dangerous as it seems, we deserve to know," said Danil Kotsyubinsky, a resident of St. Petersburg who has been pressing local officials for information.

The accident, which has been cloaked in secrecy, took place on Thursday at the Nenoska naval weapons range on the coast of the White Sea in northern Russia, and it apparently involved a test of a new type of cruise missile propelled by nuclear power, American analysts say.

The explosion killed at least seven people, released radiation that briefly elevated readings in a city 25 miles away and set off a scramble by Western experts to ascertain what happened.

The military and a state nuclear energy company announced the deaths but few details of the accident.

So Russians have been mostly left guessing.

Some Moscow television broadcasts were mysteriously interrupted for as long as 53 minutes on the night of the accident. A government broadcast agency later described the disruption as a malfunction of a storm warning system. Screens went blue. A text urged people to stay at home because of a storm with strong winds, but it never arrived.


When a state nuclear energy company first conceded that the accident involved nuclear materials - on Saturday, two days after the explosion - the disclosure did not make the evening news on all television channels.

A flurry of murky, misleading reports surfaced, which for some Russians recalled the lethal delays in acknowledging the Chernobyl accident three decades ago, although the radiation release last week was far smaller. Only on Sunday did Russian scientists explain that a small nuclear reactor had malfunctioned.

"I'm not a critic of the government, but in this situation its behavior is ugly," Dmitry Zhukov posted on a message board for residents of Severodvinsk on Vkontakte, a social networking site similar to Facebook.

"We got a mini-Fukushima right beside us and they pretended nothing scary happened."