MOSCOW — The Russian military on Tuesday told residents of a village near a navy testing range to evacuate, but cancelled the order hours later, adding to the uncertainty and confusion fueled by a missile explosion last week that led to a brief spike in radiation that frightened residents and raised new questions about the military's weapons program.
Initially the military told residents of Nyonoksa, a village of about 500, to move out temporarily, citing unspecified activities at the range. But a few hours later, it said the planned activities were cancelled and rescinded the request to leave, said Ksenia Yudina, a spokeswoman for the Severodvinsk regional administration.
Local media in Severodvinsk said Nyonoksa residents regularly receive similar temporary evacuation orders usually timed to tests at the range.
The Defence Ministry initially said Thursday's explosion of a rocket engine at the navy range killed two people and injured six others, but the state-controlled Rosatom nuclear corporation said two days later that the blast also killed five of its nuclear engineers and injured three others. It's still not clear what the final toll is.
And just as the Severodvinsk administration reported a brief spike in radiation levels, the Defence Ministry insisted that no radiation had been released — a blunt denial reminiscent of Soviet-era attempts to cover up disasters that added to public nervousness.
"It's shocking when people who live there, let alone us, have no idea what really happened," Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel Prize-winning author who wrote a book containing first-hand accounts of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster, said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "It looks like we haven't learned the lessons of Chornobyl and Fukushima."
When reactor No. 4 at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded and burned on April 26, 1986, Soviet leaders initially tried to hide the disaster from the public and it took them days to acknowledge the full scale of the world's worst nuclear accident.
After Thursday's missile explosion, the Severodvinsk city administration said the radiation level rose to 2 microsieverts per hour for about 30 minutes before returning to the area's natural level of 0.1 microsieverts per hour. Emergency officials issued a warning to all workers to stay indoors and close the windows. Spooked residents rushed to buy iodide, which can help limit the damage from exposure to radiation.
Yudina said that radiation levels in Severodvinsk, a city of 183,000 about 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Nyonoksa, have been normal since Thursday.
Local emergency officials also announced after taking ground samples from around the area that they have found no trace of radioactive contamination.
After Thursday's explosion, Russian authorities also closed part of Dvina Bay on the White Sea to shipping for a month, in what could be an attempt to prevent outsiders from witnessing an operation to recover the missile debris.
"The military's desire to keep a tight lid on information about armed forces ... has led to vitally important information being hidden from the public in a critical situation," independent military analyst Alexander Golts said in a commentary.
Neither the Defence Ministry nor Rosatom named the type of rocket that exploded during the test, saying only that it had liquid propellant.
But Rosatom's statement saying that the explosion occurred during tests of a "nuclear isotope power source" led observers to conclude it was the Burevestnik (Petrel), a nuclear-powered cruise missile code-named Skyfall by NATO that was first revealed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2018 along with other doomsday weapons.
President Donald Trump backed that theory Monday, tweeting, "The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian 'Skyfall' explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!"