Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom confirmed on Friday night that five of its staff members were killed in an accident during tests at a military site in northern Russia earlier this week.
The accident occurred during tests on a liquid propellant rocket engine on Thursday, the RIA news agency said, citing Rosatom.
Russian authorities had previously said two people had been killed in the incident and that a nearby city had reported a rise in radiation levels when a rocket engine blew up at a testing site in the Archangelsk region. Shortly after the explosion, gamma radiation levels in the neighbouring city of Severodvinsk reportedly jumped to 20 times their normal rate for nearly half an hour, contradicting the ministry’s assurances that all levels were normal.
Further explosions, injuring nine people, were reported on Friday at the site. Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement it had been hit by lightning.
Pharmacies in two northern Russia cities have reported increased sales of iodine, a chemical used to limit the effects from radiation exposure, after a mysterious explosion at a military testing site caused radiation levels to spike for a short time.
Since the incident, a section of a bay in the White Sea has been closed to civilian shipping and photographs of rescue workers wearing protective gear including respirators have raised concerns about the accident. A statement put on the Severodvinsk city website about the heightened radiation levels has also been deleted, erasing some of the only official confirmation that the incident occurred at all.
Reports on the Arkhangelsk news site 29.ru and the Interfax news agency said that local pharmacies had reported a run on iodine tablets since Thursday, and that locals were concerned about the possibility of exposure.
“They bought everything yesterday, first iodine tablets, iodomarin, then normal iodine and potassium iodide,” one pharmacist told Interfax. “The fuss began around 17.00 and by the time we closed they had bought everything. People at the register were discussing the news about the radiation in Severodvinsk, the explosion and the soldiers.”
Footage obtained by the news site Mash showed emergency workers wearing protective suits with respirators putting an injured person into an ambulance. On Friday, the Baza news site reported that the injured men had been brought to a Moscow clinic for radiation poisoning treatment and released a video of a convoy of police cars and ambulances travelling through Moscow. The clinic and a defence ministry spokesman both declined to respond to questions about the report.
It is not clear what rocket engine or weapon system was being tested at the military site. Russia’s northern fleet, including its nuclear-powered submarines, is based nearby, and the explosion reportedly occurred near a firing range for submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Theories include an explosion aboard a ship with a nuclear reactor or a failed test of the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile mentioned by Vladimir Putin during a televised speech in 2018. If the spike in radiation levels was a coincidence, fear of contamination from toxic jet fuel may also explain the use of protective gear during the operation to rescue those injured in the blast.