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How nuclear scientists are investigating a mysterious explosion in Russia

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Rumors are still circulating about the explosion on August 8 at the Russian naval base, which killed five scientists and caused a brief inexplicable jump in gamma radiation.

Information appeared slowly, and due to conflicting messages, the picture became vague and confusing. But this week, Roshydromet, the Russian hydrometeorology and environmental monitoring service, finally announced details of the release of radioactive radiation.

According to information, it was a nuclear reactor explosion, which suggests that the assumption that Russia conducted tests of a rocket known as the Petrel was not unfounded. In 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his message to the Federal Assembly, said that work was underway in the country to create a rocket that was propelled by an onboard nuclear reactor and could have an unlimited range.

But since official information about the cause of the explosion may not be enough, independent researchers are finding ways to collect more detailed information about the explosion.

What do official sources say about the explosion?

The explosion occurred at a military facility in the Arkhangelsk region in northwestern Russia. In this region, there is a closed village of Minooka, next to which is one of the largest training grounds of the Russian Navy, where scientists and designers test rockets.

The day after the explosion at Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy corporation, it was stated that during the “tests of a liquid propulsion system related to the engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources”, an accident occurred, and later added that the incident occurred on offshore platform.

At the same time, Roshydromet reported that in the city of Severodvinsk, located about 30 kilometers east of Nenoksa, there was a short-term jump in gamma radiation, which exceeded the normal level by 16 times.

On August 26, Roshydromet reported that isotopes were found in rain and air samples: strontium-91, barium-139, barium-140 and lanthanum-140.

What do we know about dead scientists?

“Rosatom” named the names of the scientists who died – Alexey Vyushin, Evgeny Karataev, Vyacheslav Lipshev, Sergey Pichugin and Vladislav Yanovsky. It is not known whether they died when they were thrown off by a blast wave from an offshore platform, or as a result of exposure to radiation.

Little is known about the studies of scientists conducted at the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics in Sarov. At least until 2016, Vyushin was a member of the ALICE international team at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, located near Geneva in Switzerland.

What do isotopes tell us?

The detected isotopes of barium, strontium, and lanthanum were probably formed in the active zone of a nuclear reactor, which generates energy by splitting uranium atoms during a chain reaction. The release of these isotopes could have occurred in the event of an explosion in the core, says Claire Corkhill, a nuclear scientist at the University of Sheffield, UK.

Any damage to the reactor core from an explosion would likely result in the release of radioactive iodine and cesium, said Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear scientist at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and environmental research company Boston Chemical Data Corporation ( Boston Chemical Data Corp.), located in Massachusetts.

An unconfirmed article published on August 16 in The Moscow Times stated that traces of cesium-137 were found in local doctors in muscle tissue. And experts from the Norwegian Department of Radiation and Nuclear Safety after the explosion recorded an unexplained increase in the level of radioactive iodine-131 in the air in the vicinity of the Svanhovd research station – almost 700 kilometers from the site of the explosion. But probably,

A student at the Sverdlovsk Pedagogical College during a training session on chemical protection

The head of the laboratory of the radioisotope complex of the Institute for Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences Boris Zhuykov explains this differently. His calculations show that if, as a result of the explosion, the core of the nuclear reactor was not damaged and the inert radioactive gases that were a fission product were leaked, then by the time the nuclei reached the detector in Severodvinsk, they would have decayed, and it would remain precisely those isotopes whose presence was fixed.

But Kaltofen warns that circumstantial evidence indicates damage to the reactor core.

Does this mean that Russia tested a nuclear missile?

Some experts think so. The likely purpose of the massive amount of energy generated by nuclear fission is to provide rocket power, says Corkhill. Little is known about the Burevestnik missile, but experts suggest that it can use liquid fuel to rise into the air, and then use a compact nuclear reactor to heat the air, which is thrown out of the nozzle to create reactive thrust – possibly within a few days.

Satellite images of the Nenox village, taken a few hours before and after the explosion, also show convincing evidence of a rocket test, says Anne Pellegrino, researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. The pictures show the launch infrastructure in Nenoks, which was also present at another facility related to the testing of a nuclear missile, she says. “The presence of this ship off the coast is very convincing evidence,” she says.

What else could it be?

A controlled fission chain reaction facility could be part of a number of military nuclear energy projects, says Michael Kofman, an analyst and Russia specialist at CNA, a nonprofit research and analytical organization based in Washington, DC.

Kofman believes that there is reason to doubt the hypothesis of testing the Petrel missile. He reasoned that in order to install a nuclear reactor on a rocket, it should be light enough and probably he would not have special protection.

Therefore, people in the vicinity will be at risk during its use. “It’s illogical for Russian scientists to be near any reactor that was tested without adequate protection,” he says. “In addition, tests of these missiles are usually carried out on land launchers, rather than on offshore platforms, and such a test facility is visible on the coast.”

With this in mind, Kofman concludes that the device was probably not a rocket power plant. According to him, it could be a torpedo with a nuclear power plant, an underwater nuclear reactor under pressure to provide energy for the underwater infrastructure, or a small reactor for use in space.

What do independent researchers study?

Kaltofen is trying to get objects such as car air filters from people living near the site of the explosion to examine all the radioactive elements they have. His team will compare this information with the analysis of other objects irradiated by well-known sources, such as the Japanese Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, which suffered a serious emission of radiation after it was damaged during the earthquake in 2011.

If there are enough filters, this method may be effective, says Corkhill, but they will need to be checked in the near future – before the decay of radioactive isotopes.

The Pellegrino team is going to more closely examine information about the dead scientists. Researchers will analyze the pages of scientists on social networks, scientific publications and presentations at conferences, which could be a clue and help to understand what they were working on.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which manages the international nuclear bomb test monitoring system, may also have data. Eight radionuclide stations of the organization operate in Russia, which measure radiation levels. But five of them were turned off within a few days after the explosion, which fuels rumors that the explosion occurred during tests of secret weapons.

As the CTBTO official spokesman said in an interview with Nature magazine, two radiation measuring stations resumed work on the Internet and began reporting data.

Is radiation hazardous to the public?

According to Zhuikov, the risk is low. The initial gamma ray burst was 16 times higher than background levels. For comparison, it should be noted that after the explosion of the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, gamma radiation was seven thousand times higher than background levels.

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