In Russia, Days of Fake News and Real Radiation After Deadly Explosion

In Russia, Days of Fake News and Real Radiation After Deadly Explosion

MOSCOW — In online posts and calls to local officials, Russians on Monday 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.

When Mr. Putin spoke, “it was a rocket with a nuclear engine,” Yulia Latinina, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, wrote. “And when it blows up it is a liquid unit with isotopic sources.”

President Trump posted a tweet about the accident Monday evening, writing, “The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia,” adding that the American military has “similar, though more advanced, technology.”

The explosion, Mr. Trump wrote, “has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!”

Boris L. Vishnevsky, a member of the St. Petersburg City Council, said dozens of people have called, asking for clarification about radiation risks.

“People need reliable information,” Mr. Vishnevsky said. “And if the authorities think there is no danger, and nothing needs to be done, let them announce this formally so people don’t worry.”

Five scientists killed in the explosion were buried on Monday. Alexei Likhachev, the head of Rosatom, praised them as the “pride of the atomic sector” at a memorial.

For Mr. Kotsyubinsky, the St. Petersburg resident who said he was worried about radiation, the statement released in the wee hours, the contradictory accounts and the silence of senior officials have conjured dark memories of Chernobyl.

As a 21-year-old college student, he said, he was ordered to march in a May Day parade in 1986. The Soviet authorities, wary of revealing that a nuclear accident had occurred just days earlier, did not cancel parades around the country in which millions of children participated.

In Ukraine, where Chernobyl is, wind bearing radioactive dust swirled around the clueless children. In northern Russia, a cancerous rain fell. With these memories still fresh, Russia adopted a Constitution in 1993 that prohibits classifying information about public health risks.

“They made us go to these demonstrations,” Mr. Kotsyubinsky said. “We didn’t know. We wound up under the rain. It wasn’t lethal, but it was radioactive. That shouldn’t happen in a society where the government answers to the people.”

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