Contact with two Russian nuclear monitoring stations has been lost in the wake of the mysterious explosion at a missile testing site earlier this month, a senior nuclear monitoring official told the Wall Street Journal on Monday.
Lassina Zerbo, the head of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, said the monitoring stations that are designed to detect radiation “went silent” in the days following the August 8 explosion at a remote missile test site in Arkhangelsk, Russia.
Zerbo said nuclear officials immediately reached out to Russian authorities after transmissions from the stations in Dubna and Kirov were lost, but were told both sites were experiencing “communication & network issues.”
“We are pending further reports on when the stations or the communication system will be restored to full functionality,” Zerbo said in his email to the WSJ.
He declined to speculate on what caused the outage, but the executive director of the Arms Control Association, Daryl Kimball, told the Journal that Russia was likely trying to deflect outside attention away from its secretive weapons programs.
“It is a very odd coincidence that these stations stopped sending data shortly after the August 8 incident,” Kimball said. “It is probably because they want to obscure the technical details of the missile-propulsion system they are trying and failing to develop but this is not a legitimate reason to cut off test-ban monitoring data transmissions.”
Initially, the Russian Defense Ministry said the explosion of a rocket engine in the northwestern Arkhangelsk region 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.
Rosatom said the explosion occurred while the engineers were testing a “nuclear isotope power source” for a rocket engine.
Local authorities in nearby Severodvinsk, a city of 183,000, reported that radiation had spiked to 16 times the normal levels after the explosion, but said it didn’t pose any health hazards.
Russian authorities haven’t registered any increase in radiation since then. Local emergency officials also said ground samples from around the area revealed no trace of radioactive contamination.
Following the 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.
Last week, residents of the small nearby town of Nyonoksa were asked to leave for several hours, causing new worries. The order was quickly rescinded by the military, who said they canceled the activities at the range that had warranted the initial evacuation order.
On Thursday, Norway’s nuclear safety authority said it detected tiny amounts of radioactive iodine in a region near the Russian border, but said it was not possible to tell if it was linked to the explosion at the Arkhangelsk site.