US-based experts suspect Russia blast involved nuclear-powered missile

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on August 5, 2019. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)
Updated 10 August 2019
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US-based experts suspect Russia blast involved nuclear-powered missile

  • Russian officials earlier said an explosion of a liquid propellant rocket engine on Aug. 8
  • A Russian municipal website reported a “short-term” spike in background radiation

WASHINGTON: US-based nuclear experts said on Friday they suspected an accidental blast and radiation release in northern Russia this week occurred during the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile vaunted by President Vladimir Putin last year.
The Russian Ministry of Defense, quoted by state-run news outlets, said that two people died and six were injured on Thursday in an explosion of what it called a liquid propellant rocket engine. No dangerous substances were released, it said. Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom said early on Saturday that five of its staff members died.
A spokeswoman for Severodvinsk, a city of 185,000 near the test site in the Arkhangelsk region, was quoted in a statement on the municipal website as saying that a “short-term” spike in background radiation was recorded at noon Thursday. The statement was not on the site on Friday.
The Russian Embassy did not immediately respond for comment.
Two experts said in separate interviews with Reuters that a liquid rocket propellant explosion would not release radiation.
They said that they suspected the explosion and the radiation release resulted from a mishap during the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile at a facility outside the village of Nyonoksa.
“Liquid fuel missile engines exploding do not give off radiation, and we know that the Russians are working on some kind of nuclear propulsion for a cruise missile,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists.
Russia calls the missile the 9M730 Buresvestnik. The NATO alliance has designated it the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
A senior Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would not confirm or deny that a mishap involving a nuclear-powered cruise missile occurred. But he expressed deep skepticism over Moscow’s explanation.
“We continue to monitor the events in the Russian far north but Moscow’s assurances that ‘everything is normal’ ring hollow to us,” said the official.
“This reminds us of a string of incidents dating back to Chernobyl that call into question whether the Kremlin prioritizes the welfare of the Russian people above maintaining its own grip on power and its control over weak corruption streams.”
The official was referring to the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, which released radioactive airborne contamination for about nine days. Moscow delayed revealing the extent of what is regarded as the worst nuclear accident in history.
Putin boasted about the nuclear-powered cruise missile in a March 2018 speech to the Russian parliament in which he hailed the development of a raft of fearsome new strategic weapons.
The missile, he said, was successfully tested in late 2017, had “unlimited range” and was “invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.”

<b>’Not there by accident’</b>
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said he believed that a mishap occurred during the testing of the nuclear-powered cruise missile based on commercial satellite pictures and other data.
Using satellite photos, he and his team determined that the Russians last year appeared to have disassembled a facility for test-launching the missile at a site in Novaya Zemlya and moved it to the base near Nyonoksa.
The photos showed that a blue “environmental shelter” — under which the missiles are stored before launching – at Nyonoksa and rails on which the structure is rolled back appear to be the same as those removed from Novaya Zemlya.
Lewis and his team also examined Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from ships located off the coast on the same day as the explosion. They identified one ship as the Serebryanka, a nuclear fuel carrier that they had tracked last year off Novaya Zemlya.
“You don’t need this ship for conventional missile tests,” Lewis said. “You need it when you recover a nuclear propulsion unit from the sea floor.”
He noted that the AIS signals showed that the Serebryanka was located inside an “exclusion zone” established off the coast a month before the test, to keep unauthorized ships from entering.
“What’s important is that the Serebryanka is inside that exclusion zone. It’s there. It’s inside the ocean perimeter that they set up. It’s not there by accident,” he said. “I think they were probably there to pick up a propulsion unit off the ocean floor.”
Lewis said he didn’t know what kind of radiation hazard the Russian system poses because he did was unaware of the technical details, such as the size of the nuclear reactor.
But he noted that the United States sought to develop a nuclear-powered missile engine in the 1950s that spewed radiation.
“It represented a health hazard to anyone underneath it,” he said. 


WHO: Tanzania not sharing information on Ebola

Updated 22 September 2019

WHO: Tanzania not sharing information on Ebola

  • WHO issues rare public rebuke as the region struggles to contain an outbreak already declared a global health emergency

DAR ES SALAAM: Tanzania is refusing to provide detailed information on suspected Ebola cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, a rare public rebuke as the region struggles to contain an outbreak already declared a global health emergency.
Transparency and speed are key to combating the deadly hemorrhagic fever because the disease can spread rapidly. Contacts of any potentially infected person must be quarantined and the public warned to step up precautions like handwashing.
WHO said in a statement released late on Saturday that it was made aware on Sept. 10 of the death of a patient in Dar es Salaam, and unofficially told the next day that the person tested positive for Ebola. The woman had died on Sept. 8.
“Identified contacts of the deceased were unofficially reported to be quarantined in various sites in the country,” the statement said.
WHO said it was unofficially told that Tanzania had two other possible Ebola cases. One had tested negative and there was no information on the other one.
Officially, the Tanzanian government said last weekend it had no confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola. The government did not address the death of the woman directly and did not provide any further information.
Despite several requests “clinical data, results of the investigations, possible contacts and potential laboratory tests performed ... have not been communicated to WHO,” the UN health agency said.
“The limited available official information from Tanzanian authorities represents a challenge.”
Authorities in east and central Africa have been on high alert for possible spill-overs of Ebola from the Democratic Republic of Congo where a year-long outbreak has killed more than 2,000 people.
Last week the US health secretary, Alex Azar criticized Tanzania for its failure to share information on the possible outbreak. The next day he dispatched a senior US health official to Tanzania.
Uganda, which neighbors Congo, has already recorded several cases after sick patients crossed the border. A quick government response there prevented the disease spreading.
The 34-year-old woman who died in Dar es Salaam had traveled to Uganda, according to a leaked internal WHO document circulated earlier this month. She showed signs of Ebola including headache, fever, rash, bloody diarrhea on Aug. 10 and eventually died on Sept. 8.
Tanzania is heavily reliant on tourism and an outbreak of Ebola would likely lead to a dip in visitor numbers.
The WHO statement is not the first time international organizations have queried information from the government of President John Magufuli, nicknamed The Bulldozer for his pugnacious ruling style. Earlier this year both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund contradicted the government’s economic growth figure for 2018.