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Radiation Is Said to Be Released in Russian Military Accident

MOSCOW — A fire that broke out on Thursday at a weapons testing range in northern Russia killed two people, briefly raised radiation levels and prompted the authorities to prohibit shipping and sailing in parts of the White Sea for a month, according to officials and news media reports.

Russia’s military said that the fire occurred when a liquid-fueled rocket engine exploded at the testing site, but that radiation levels remained at normal background levels, contradicting reports from the municipal authorities in nearby Severodvinsk. It was the second lethal accident involving the Russian Navy in just over a month.

There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy in the statements from the military and the authorities in Severodvinsk — a major manufacturing and testing center for Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet, and the closest major population center to the reported accident site.

A researcher at the Norwegian-based environmental group Bellona, Andrei Zolotkov, told the Interfax news agency the radiation level was probably not harmful, but raised worrying questions.

If the radioactive spike was caused by the fire at the site, he said, “it follows that this fire in some way touched radioactive substances,” which entered the atmosphere. “It’s worth paying attention to.”

In the past, Russia’s navy has been slow in acknowledging the gravity of emergencies, the scale of human loss or the environmental threat. When the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in 2000, for example, the navy issued misleading statements about the accident and the well-being of the crew, who in fact all perished.

Interfax reported that the fire had broken out near the town of Nenoksa, about 25 miles west of Severodvinsk; Russian news outlets have reported that a naval weapons test range is nearby.

The accident resulted in a “measurement of a short-term elevation in radiation,” the local government said in a statement, citing Severodvinsk’s director of civil defense, Valentin Magomedov.

The statement said that two radiation meters in the city had showed elevated levels shortly after 11:50 a.m. Thursday. The readings declined within half an hour and returned to normal by 2 p.m., it said.

The state-run Tass news agency had earlier cited the Defense Ministry as offering a different assessment, saying that “there was no release of toxic materials into the atmosphere, and the radiation level is normal.”

That account was consistent with readings from the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, which tracks radiation levels in the region. It said it had detected no indications of leakage as of Thursday evening.

A Russian maritime authority, the Administration of Western Arctic Ports, announced shipping and sailing would be prohibited for a month in Dvina Bay, which is in an area of the White Sea close to the military range where the fire took place.

This and other isolated, windblown inlets off the Arctic Ocean are home to the Northern Fleet, seen as the most important of the five branches of the Russian Navy. The others are the Pacific fleet, the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea fleet and the Caspian flotilla.

Analysts have blamed past accidents, including the sinking of the Kursk, on the threadbare state of the post-Soviet navy. But competition for dominance over the thawing Arctic Ocean has elevated the Northern Fleet’s importance today, said Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trends, and the Kremlin has poured in resources.

“When there is high intensity training and testing, there is also a higher chance of something unexpected or tragic,” he said.

Russian news media reported contradictory details about the accident.

Tass, citing an unidentified emergency services official, reported that a fire had broken out onboard a vessel of Russia’s Northern Fleet northwest of Severodvinsk. An earlier report by Interfax had said the episode occurred at a weapons testing range.

No evacuation was planned for Severodvinsk, whose population is about 190,000 people, Tass reported, citing the region’s governor, Igor Orlov.

A fire last month on a Russian nuclear-powered naval submersible killed 14 sailors. Officials in neighboring Norway reported no radiation release after the blaze.


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