Emergency And Medical Personnel Speak Out On The Nyonoksa Explosion

Two accounts of caring for the victims of the accident at Nyonoksa on August 8 were published Wednesday, August 21, in Meduza (English version) and Novaya Gazeta. The sources are an emergency responder and two doctors. The emergency responder was not on duty that day and relies on the reports of co-workers. The sources want to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

I have questions about these accounts and a Washington Post account that seems to refer to another Novaya Gazeta article without linking. But first, let’s see what can reasonably be gleaned from the accounts.

The military, who apparently were responsible for the test, were utterly unprepared for an accident. The emergency responder describes the precautions that should reasonably have been taken for an test with significant quantities of radioactive material, as seems to have been the case. The military should have had decontamination equipment on hand, and they should have notified local emergency responders and hospitals that an experiment was planned. After the accident, the military should have notified responders and hospitals of what to expect. None of this was done.

As a result, there was a scramble to bring victims of the accident to appropriate facilities. In doing so, they contaminated a hospital, probably ambulances and other emergency vehicles, and endangered personnel. The military has done some decontamination.

The patients are reported to have had broken bones, but nothing else is said about their condition.

Hospital personnel were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and the records of the event were seized by the military. Hospital personnel are not clear on what is national security information and what is just to keep the event quiet. They are concerned and angry about their health and possible radiation exposure. Some, but not all, of the personnel who were exposed were taken to Moscow for further examination.

The questions

I am wary of news reports concerning radiation. Radiation is too often treated as a mysterious process impossible for lay people to understand, so reporters find it acceptable to write words into sentences that have a proper grammatical structure but are meaningless. Radiation is easier to understand than Checkov’s plays or T. S. Eliot’s poetry, which the reporters may well be acquainted with. I see some of the usual problems in these articles.

Quotes from the articles are in italics.

The victims in the explosion were taken to a hospital in Arkhangelsk, where the radioactive nuclide cesium-137 was later detected in the body of one of the doctors.

Several outlets have reported that cesium-137 was found “in muscle tissue” of one of the doctors. The only way this makes sense is if the doctor had a cut that some of the radioactive material got into and then was washed out or biopsied. Radioisotopes (the general word for radioactive elements) are physical things and require physical pathways of movement.

…none of the responding rescue workers or physicians were warned that they were treating irradiated patients.

Irradiation, even at high levels, produces very little activation in the human body. Irradiation and contamination are often confused. Irradiation is being exposed to high levels of radiation from a source, as in the case of Louis Slotin. Contamination is having radioactive materials attached to one’s body. An explosion of radioactive materials would scatter materials both as chunks and dust. It’s possible that the victims’ bodies contained radioactive shrapnel and probably had radioactive dust on them. That is the reason for decontamination, which largely consists of washing.

Because they weren’t told whom they were transporting, the air-medical responders didn’t even take basic safety measures. They flew into a hotbed of isotope radiation without respirators or protective gear, and took away the victims.

Did a helicopter fly out to the barge where the experiment was conducted? How much radiation was there? Was it a runaway reactor or a smashed and dispersed source of radioactive materials? Different precautions would be appropriate for the two situations. Isotope radiation isn’t the way a knowledgeable person would phrase it, raising questions of how accurate the account and reporter’s transcription of it is.

In the Meduza doctor’s account, radiation levels are not given. Detecting beta radiation can be tricky, so it may not be surprising that it was missed. But we need more information – the kinds of detectors used, whether the victims had shrapnel in their bodies – to be able to understand what the problems were.

It’s not clear whether the same doctor talked to both Meduza and Novaya Gazeta. The accounts are close enough that it could be.

its dose was 22 thousand microparticles per square cm

“Microparticles” is not a standard unit. It probably should be becquerel, which is 1 disintegration/sec. Units of radiation are indeed confusing. Becquerel is a measurement of the amount of radiation, and 22,000 Bq per square centimeter over an entire room would be a lot. But we don’t know how it was measured. If it was only a small smudge, no big deal.

Will Englund and Natalia Abbakumova, in the Washington Post, report that an article in Novaya Gazeta says that two of the Russian specialists died from radiation sickness within 24 hours. The Post article does not link to Novaya Gazeta, and the article I have been quoting does not mention radiation sickness. Search by Russian-speaking followers on Twitter has not turned up another article. Two Manhattan Project scientists were killed by high neutron fluxes in criticality accidents. It took them days and weeks to die. A Twitter thread with links to reading is here. However, another follower pointed out to me Cecil Kelley died 35 hours after a criticality accident.

What was it? – The continuing question

These accounts add little to our understanding of the accident itself. Novaya Gazeta says it was a “test of a rocket with a radioisotope power source.” This description has appeared before, but it’s hard to know what it means. Radioisotope power sources don’t have enough power to propel a rocket.

The reports of cesium-137 and no other isotope point to a radioisotope power source, but cesium-137 is a poor choice for high power. Cesium-137 is a fission product, but if the test object was a reactor that went critical, there should be numerous other isotopes as well – strontium-90, several iodine isotopes, and others.

If the Washington Post report is correct, and if cesium-137 is the only radioactive isotope involved, then the radiation poisoning deaths must be from ingestion of the cesium-137, perhaps by being covered with it and having it forced into the victims’ bodies as shrapnel. Cesium-137 cannot cause high-level neutron irradiation like the Manhattan Project accidents; only a reactor or other critical assembly can do that.

If cesium-137 was the power source, then it is hard to see how it could cause an explosion. Liquid rocket fuel has been mentioned in other accounts, and that could cause an explosion.

It seems to me that the most significant thing we learn from this is that the military prepared poorly for this test. That implies a desire for speed and secrecy. For inferring what was tested, we have learned little and perhaps become more confused. We have to keep in mind that some of the information from the Russian government may be misleading.

Top photo: Severodvinsk, from Meduza.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

 






54 replies
  1. 1

    It seems to me that the most significant thing we learn from this is that the military prepared poorly for this test. That implies a desire for speed and secrecy.

    The Russian military has generations of experience working with nuclear stuff. Much of that work was hurried, and all of it was secretive, so they ought to know what they’re doing as far as being able to carry out this kind of experiment. That they’ve bungled it so badly makes me think either that they’ve lost their institutional expertise, or that this project was being carried out by people from outside their military nuclear establishment. That they needed to call in civilian medical personnel seems really odd. They ought to have had military medical teams on hand.

  2. 2
    Fair Economist says:

    Cesium-137 is a fission product, but if the test object was a reactor that went critical, there should be numerous other isotopes as well – strontium-90, several iodine isotopes, and others.

    The article doesn’t say that the other isotopes were *not* found, only that Cesium-137 *was*. Strontium-90 doesn’t produce gamma radiation, and iodine is a normal component of body tissues, so with limited equipment Cesium-137 might be the only radioactive product they could demonstrate is present.

    I think it’s pretty likely they were testing the nuclear cruise missile. There *was* an explosion, so it’s either the missile fuel to get it to scramjet speeds or the nuclear power system itself. If it was a stationary test, the scramjet fuel wouldn’t be part of the test, so the only thing to go boom would be the reactor itself.

    tldr: I think a nuclear reactor explosion was the most likely cause, even without this latest information.

  3. 3
    trollhattan says:

    Cs137 is a beta emitter?

  4. 4
    The Moar You Know says:

    That they needed to call in civilian medical personnel seems really odd. They ought to have had military medical teams on hand.

    @Roger Moore: They didn’t. And sometimes the absence of a thing can tell you at least as much as the presence of a thing.

  5. 5
    Fair Economist says:

    @Roger Moore:

    That they’ve bungled it so badly makes me think either that they’ve lost their institutional expertise, or that this project was being carried out by people from outside their military nuclear establishment.

    It’s well-known that decades of underfunding plus chronic corruption under Putin has done a lot of damage to their military establishment in general. Just looking at the history of their aircraft carrier – which was scheduled to be refitted after a serious of humiliating accidents, and then was stranded when the dry dock sank – tells you the Russian military is seriously messed up and nothing like the powerhouse that beat the Nazis and challenged us during the Cold War.

  6. 6
    Immanentize says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I love this community. Thank you Cheryl and all you other smarty pants.

  7. 7
    Fair Economist says:

    @trollhattan: Yeah, but Cesium-137’s decay product is a short-lived gamma emitter.

  8. 8
    Immanentize says:

    @Fair Economist:
    Wouldn’t a nuclear reactor explosion — even a mini reactor like that imagined in Pluto missiles — be observable from satellites, seismic monitors, our own Arctic subs, etc. all over a good part of that world?

  9. 9
    Immanentize says:

    @Fair Economist: And their sub fleet is really on its last legs as well.

  10. 10
    Ruckus says:

    @Roger Moore:
    The best that I can tell is that the Russian government tries to do extraordinary projects without all the needs of the project, whatever those might be. Money, time, safety….. Everything has to be bigger, grander than opponents. Bigger planes, subs, nuclear power……. And most of those things fail at some point. And often because the necessary safety, precautions, basic concepts haven’t been considered or anywhere near first priority.

  11. 11

    @Immanentize:

    Wouldn’t a nuclear reactor explosion — even a mini reactor like that imagined in Pluto missiles — be observable from Sattelites, seismic monitors, our own Arctic subs, etc. all over a good part of that world?

    No. An explosion in a nuclear reactor is very different from a nuclear bomb going off. It’s going to be a low order explosion that results from steam going over pressure or a buildup of hydrogen that explodes or something like that. It’s effectively an unintentional dirty bomb, not a mini-Hiroshima.

  12. 12
    Immanentize says:

    @Roger Moore: ah,. Of course, so the explosion is not itself a nuclear fusion or fission event, just a boom that implicated nuclear fuel without the follow on big badda boom. Yes?

  13. 13
    The Moar You Know says:

    tldr: I think a nuclear reactor explosion was the most likely cause, even without this latest information.

    @Fair Economist:

    Wouldn’t a nuclear reactor explosion — even a mini reactor like that imagined in Pluto missiles — be observable from satellites, seismic monitors, our own Arctic subs, etc. all over a good part of that world?

    @Immanentize:

    Guys: reactors don’t explode. They can’t (with one possible exception which this wouldn’t be, a breeder reactor). They melt down. They can flash-steam their own coolant and blow apart their containers, but they don’t explode as in “nuclear explosion”.

  14. 14
    Immanentize says:

    @Roger Moore: I have been operating on the (limited knowledge but not completely ignorant) theory that a nuclear powered cruise missile is itself, necessarily to reach ramjet speeds, a big ass travelling dirty “bomb.” Is that assumption wrong?

  15. 15
    Ruckus says:

    @Fair Economist:
    What beat the nazis in WWII was the willingness to be ready to die, and the willingness to use tactics and make them work against more powerful force. Women snipers for example. Also the nazis thought it would be a walk in the park. It wasn’t even close to that. It was people mostly not technology that was the defining thing in WWII. Today it’s technology and how much is spent. Review most wars and one side will have more of something that wins and it’s usually people willing to risk themselves more than anything else.

  16. 16
  17. 17
    Fair Economist says:

    @Immanentize: That’s exactly what the Pluto plan was. We don’t know what the current Russian plans are, but I am not expecting fantastic environmental safety improvements from Putin’s military.

  18. 18

    @Immanentize: Here’s something I wrote a year ago on Projects Pluto and Rover, the most likely antecedents to Burevestnik.

  19. 19
  20. 20
    Immanentize says:

    @Fair Economist: I thought the Pluto plan found the limitations of air cooling — just cannot cool a nuclear reactor with air like you can with water (submarines) so you just have to dump the waste as you go. I guess the Russians could have “discovered” cold fusion…. Ha!

  21. 21
    Raven says:

    @Ruckus: My old man was always convinced at the Nazi’s would have won if they had put their resources into developing jet instead on the V 2.

    “… those of us who were seriously engaged in the war were very grateful to Wernher von Braun. We knew that each V-2 cost as much to produce as a high-performance fighter airplane. We knew that German forces on the fighting fronts were in desperate need of airplanes, and that the V-2 rockets were doing us no military damage. From our point of view, the V-2 program was almost as good as if Hitler had adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament.” (Freeman Dyson)[66]”

  22. 22
    Immanentize says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:
    Thank you!

  23. 23
    MattF says:

    Somewhat OT.

    @Fair Economist: The Russian military victory in WWII is the subject of a terrific recent lecture by Stephen Kotkin at the Institute for Advanced Studies.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1NV-hq2akCQ

  24. 24

    @Immanentize:

    I have been operating on the (limited knowledge but not completely ignorant) theory that a nuclear powered cruise missile is itself, necessarily to reach ramjet speeds, a big ass travelling dirty “bomb.” Is that assumption wrong?

    Any reactor can turn into a dirty bomb if there’s a catastrophic containment failure; that’s why civilian designs spend so much effort on safety and containment. Military designs tend to sacrifice some safety for compactness, high power density, etc. and a flying design is going to take that tendency to the extreme. Of course the threat of the dirty bomb seems kind of tame compared to the big thermonuclear device attached to it.

  25. 25

    @Raven:
    By the time they were working on the V-2, the Luftwaffe was a pale shadow of its former glory. Even if the Germans could have turned out plenty of jet planes- and remember, they had the Me-262, so they had a decent design- they lacked the pilots to fly them. The Germans never trained a lot of pilots, and after the Allies had enough long-range fighters, they no longer had safe places to train them. And honestly, jets weren’t going to win the war for them. They could have made the Allies’ victory more costly, but they weren’t going to be able to beat the Russians, Americans, and British simultaneously.

  26. 26
    Another Scott says:

    Thanks for this. I’ll study it later.

    TheBulletin has a timeline with more links:

    Friday, August 23: NORSAR, the Norwegian nuclear test-ban monitor, states that its data indicate that the initial explosion was followed by a second explosion approximately two hours later.

    Not good. :-(

    Cheers,
    Scott.

  27. 27

    @Another Scott: I haven’t looked at the NORSAR report yet, was busy writing this post when it came out. Given the general uncertainty as to what was being tested, I doubt that it gives us much more basis for a conclusion.

  28. 28
    Raven says:

    @Roger Moore: Okee dokeee. I was never quite sure of that but I didn’t argue with the old man much.

  29. 29

    @Raven:
    I might be a bit strong with the “jets couldn’t have won the war for Germany”. If they had jets early enough they might have been able to win the Battle of Britain, which could have forced the British out of the war so they weren’t trying to beat the UK and USSR simultaneously. And they might have made enough difference that they could have gotten to Moscow in 1941, which could have made a big difference. But the V-2 wasn’t the reason they didn’t have jets in 1940.

  30. 30

    @Immanentize: Basically a reactor explosion in a light water reactor (except for Chernobyl) is a gigantic boiler explosion. Messy and hard to clean up, but not a nuclear bomb.

    Chernobyl…that was so stupid. (The following is IIRC from Mahaffey’s account.) The reactor was too big for a containment vessel. They used graphite for the moderator, and graphite as a lubricant for the control rods. The graphite lubricant accelerated the reaction before the control rods damped it. When the reactor went out of control the moderator burned. End result: the graphite burned, the core vaporized, Europe got irradiated.

    Do not overestimate Russian competence in this area.

  31. 31
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Roger Moore: Also, the Brits had a jet fighter too: the Gloster Meteor. Whatever operational advantage the Germans might have had with the ME 262 would have been shortlived at best.

  32. 32

    @Tom Levenson:
    And, of course, every country in WWII made some stupid strategic moves and spent some of their resources unwisely. Many of the criticisms of the V-2 could also be made against the strategic bombing campaign. I won’t claim to be an expert in the area, but the experts I’ve read suggest the strategic bombing campaign was a massive waste of resources. If the US and UK had put the money and effort they spent on strategic bombers on a better tactical airforce and a better ground army, they might have been able to invade France successfully in 1943. If the Soviets had deployed their forces better in 1941 (and hadn’t gutted their officer corps with needless purges) they might have been more effective at stopping the German invasion. And so forth.

  33. 33
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Tom Levenson: OT, and I wasn’t going to pick a fight with you or the original author on Twitter (a, more public than I’d like and b, didn’t really have the time), but in the last day or two you retweeted a piece from the JTA about Stepan Bandera and his grandson that was so littered with glaring factual errors that I had to stop reading it halfway through. I mean really basic things, easy to check.

  34. 34

    @Ruckus:

    Everything has to be bigger, grander than opponents. Bigger planes, subs, nuclear power……. And most of those things fail at some point. And often because the necessary safety, precautions, basic concepts haven’t been considered or anywhere near first priority.

    Geez…………this reminds me of somebody………….hmmmmm

  35. 35
    trollhattan says:

    @Fair Economist: @Cheryl Rofer:
    Thanks.

    Back in my CERCLA days it was one of the radionuclide contaminants at McClellan AFB. Have forgotten much more than I remember of that site at this point, more that it made a lot of house payments in exchange for some portion of my soul and sanity.

  36. 36
    Ruckus says:

    @Roger Moore:
    Early jets had the major problem that making the blades for the engines was basically beyond the then current machining capabilities. So the performance was not a whole lot better than the best reciprocating engine planes. My dad worked for a company in the 50s that made jet engine blades. Forty years later my shop was a couple blocks away from where that company had located and we both used the same technology to make things, them still including jet engine blades. I know because we used to discuss the machining concepts/machines that we both used. Small world.
    So the problems the Germans had was pilots, another was fuel, the third was ability to produce the product. You go to war with the technology that you have and can introduce, not which you’d like to have. We’d have used the atomic bomb sooner if we’d had one and a way to get it to the target.

  37. 37
    NCSteve says:

    @Roger Moore: Russia also has a long history of letting obsessive secrecy prevent the accumulation, dissemination and, almost inevitably, inter-generational transfer of institutional knowledge about nuclear materials and their dangers outside of a tight circle of experts.

  38. 38
    Ruckus says:

    @John Revolta:
    The successful use of irony twice in two days. A huge new record!
    Thank you!

  39. 39
    trollhattan says:

    @Ruckus:
    What the turbine had over the most advanced piston engines was being vastly simpler. I’m thinking engines like the Pratt & Whitney Wasp. 28 cylinders? What could possibly go wrong?

  40. 40
    Jay says:

    @Ruckus:

    The ME-262 was quite a bit “better” than piston powered aircraft at the time, so much so that SOP for dealing with them was loitering over German Airfields and killing them on take off or when landing. And that includes the problems caused by it’s compromised design, ( Hitler wanted it to be a bomber).

    When the Allies took Germany, they recovered a large number of German aircraft, because much of the German Airforce was grounded for lack of fuel.

    The ME-262 and other jets, were still flying because they ran on kerosene blends, not high octane avgas.

    They didn’t lack for pilots, just good experienced ones. Some of the bodies stuffed into cockpits had all of 2 weeks flight training.

    The Germans had figured out the machining, their problem was metalurgy, so the ME-262 “ate” engines. Luckily, it had two.

    Still, it wasn’t a war winner, because Germany lost the war in 1941 when they chose to fight a two front war.

    If you have the money, you can buy a “new build” modernized ME-262 to play with.

  41. 41
    Steve in the ATL says:

    @trollhattan:

    CERCLA

    You’re supposed to post a trigger warning before typing those letters!

    I made some money on it too, but it was unsatisfying as I couldn’t do much to help my client, other than reminding them to bring their checkbook.

  42. 42
    Ruckus says:

    @Raven:
    A jet required a pilot, and that pilot was more likely to be shot down than a V2, and the technology of the jet itself may be captured. None of these were good for Germany. A V2 gave them a weapon they could attack England faster and less likely of loss getting there. Given the abilities at the time it seems to me that the V2 gave them more.

  43. 43
    Jay says:

    @trollhattan:

    The turbine wasn’t simpler. Internal combustion engines had been around for along time, the physics, machining, metallurgy, lubrications, fuel, fuel supply, cooling, etc, had all been figured out.

    The Jumo engines had a service life of 10-25 hours, and if they failed when running, many could not be rebuilt.

  44. 44
    Wayne says:

    Thanks Cheryl, I appreciate the knowledge you bring to this topic.

  45. 45
    trollhattan says:

    @Jay:
    I’m not commenting on the engineering and materials challenges but rather, noting the vast complexity of multi-row piston engines with various supercharging schemes versus the relative simplicity of a turbine. And setting aside turboprops, getting rid of the propeller (or dual propellers) and its gearbox and pitch angle adjusters.

  46. 46
    Jay says:

    @Ruckus:

    The problem was that the Allies on all fronts, had Air Superiority by the time of the V1, V2 and other “miracle weapons”. Other than the jets, ( and some of the souped up standards like the Talfuen(sp)) none of the “miracle weapons” had any potential to address that problem.

    That was a common trait of much of German weapons production, ( aside from some Tank destroyers and small arms) in 1944/45. Much of the weapons being produced, did not address Germany’s strategic position at that point in time in the war.

    Instead of building Mark 5G’s by the crapload, they were building Panthers, King Tigers and Maus. Mark 5’s were cheap, reliable, fast, had a smaller crew, were as good as any Allied tank, and so, in combat, when broken down or “killed” armour could not be recovered, ( because the ground was lost), less material and cost was lost. When units had to retreat, fewer vehicles would be lost, compared to the unreliable “super tanks).

    German industry was building “breakthrough” weapons that addressed the tipping point period of the war, ( 1942/43) not the situation of late 1943-45.

  47. 47

    @Ruckus:
    Another problem the early jets had compared to piston engine planes was poor throttle response. With a piston engine, you can go from cruising to full military power very quickly, but jets spool up a lot slower. That gave piston-powered planes an advantage, especially if they could get surprise. Of course it takes a skilled pilot to turn that performance difference into a practical advantage in a dogfight…

  48. 48

    @Jay:

    Instead of building Mark 5G’s by the crapload, they were building Panthers, King Tigers and Maus.

    This was a mistake, but it was not a war losing mistake. The things that lost the war were the strategic decisions about which countries to go to war with. By the time the choice was between producing more Panzer Vs* or more King Tigers, it was just a matter of how long they could postpone the inevitable.

    *OB nit: The Panzer V was the Panther.

  49. 49
    Gvg says:

    Is it possible they are lying about a test, and it was just an accident caused by failing infrastructure? Saying they were testing something seems to project more competence and strength than admitting something just broke. The Russia people are describing seems almost at the level of needing to bluff strength. It doesn’t make the scary to hear about their carrier can’t get out of dry dock, which sunk.
    I really don’t know anything about this subject, so I really am just asking.

  50. 50
    Ken B says:

    @Roger Moore:
    Pretty sure he meant the Panzer IV rather than the Panzer V.

    But not sure because he called it fast, which it wasn’t, particularly. It was also showing its age by that point, and there limited options for future upgrades down the road.

  51. 51
    zhena gogolia says:

    Cheryl, did you see this by the person who translated the texts (I think he runs Meduza):

    https://twitter.com/KevinRothrock/status/1164388638379130881

  52. 52
    J R in WV says:

    @Immanentize:

    Wouldn’t a nuclear reactor explosion — even a mini reactor like that imagined in Pluto missiles — be observable from satellites, seismic monitors, our own Arctic subs, etc. all over a good part of that world?

    No, reactors don’t explode like a weapon, they just spew highly radioactive debris all around the local community. Like Chernobyl. I guess you could detect the heat if it was a big as Chernobyl, but this appear to have happened pretty fast, and ended. Dead folks and all, and spewed all around, even into Europe, but not a big bang.

  53. 53

    @zhena gogolia: I used Meduza’s English translation for the post. Rothrock has a couple of things wrong in that thread because he doesn’t understand radiation. I am working on an explanatory post on radiation generally.

    Interestingly, the Google translation of the article wasn’t too different from Rothrock’s, although it had a couple more terminology mistakes.

  54. 54

    @Gvg: Probably not failing infrastructure. In my earlier post, I talked about the evidence from satellite photos. They had a support ship for radiological materials, and the test seems to have been carried out on a barge. It was a test, but we don’t have enough evidence to say of what, although it’s most likely one of Putin’s advanced weapons. Or trying to be.

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