Russia's Nuclear Power Plant Ship Raises U.S. Fears While Questions Surround Deadly Missile Accident

Russia's one-of-a-kind, floating nuclear power plant has set sail through the Arctic, not far from where a radioactive explosion recently killed several scientists working on a new missile in the latest incident to raise concerns about the country's safety record.

The Akademik Lomonosov floating power unit has two KLT-40 naval propulsion nuclear reactors and is to be tugged 3,100 miles from the Barents Sea port city of Murmansk across the Arctic to the remote town of Pevek, located off the Chukchi Sea that separates Russia's Chukotka region from the U.S. state of Alaska. Activist group Greenpeace has dubbed the ship a "Chernobyl on ice" and a "nuclear Titanic" in an effort to raise awareness about the potential damage it could do to the environment.

While Russia's state-run Rosatom nuclear group has dismissed these concerns, Alaska Public Media reported Thursday on the concerns of a local environmental group, a shipping company and a U.S. Naval War College expert, who expressed reservations about Russia's past and present nuclear practices.

As the barge began its journey that same day, Moscow's record took another hit as a massive blast rocked a testing site near the White Sea coast village of Nyonoksa, causing a radiation spike that reportedly sent some residents of the city of Severodvinsk running for iodine tablets, which can protect the thyroid from absorbing harmful radiation. Though local authorities initially downplayed the incident, by Monday, Rosatom was burying five nuclear workers.

russia floating nuclear power plant
Russia's Akademik Lomonosov nuclear floating power unit is seen at its Atomflot base north of Murmansk city in this picture shared June by the Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation. Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation

Interest in Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear disaster, has resurged since the release this year of an HBO miniseries on the events surrounding the 1986 explosion and meltdown of the nuclear plant of the same name in Soviet Ukraine. While the show highlighted instances of heroism among those attempting to clean up the contaminated site and understand how things could have gone so wrong, it also illustrated individual and systematic failures that plagued the Soviet Union's nuclear program at the time.

More than three decades later, only Japan has suffered a comparable incident, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and carried some forms of radiation as far away as California. Though such events were rare, they have the potential to have effects that last ages.

Thursday's radiation spike in Severodvinsk was claimed by Greenpeace to be 20 times the average level and, though it was said to have quickly returned to normal levels, Russian authorities closed off the Dvina Bay for shipping for the next month.

In a statement published Friday, Rosatom said that "as result of an accident at a military training ground in the Arkhangelsk region, five employees of the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom were killed while testing a liquid propulsion system." It also said that "three of our colleagues received injuries and burns of varying severity" and revealed that "the tragedy occurred during the period of work related to the engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources in a liquid propulsion system."

The following day, the state-run Tass Russian News Agency cited the company as saying that the incident occurred when "missile tests" were being held on a "sea-based platform." This, coupled with reports of nuclear fuel carrier Serebryanka, appearing in the area, raised speculation as to whether the test was of the Burestvetnik nuclear-powered cruise missiles, one of the advanced weapons concepts unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2018.

russia nuclear cruise missile test burevestnik
Russia tests its 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile in this clip released July 19, 2018 by the Russian Defense Ministry. Trials of the unique, experimental weapon have reportedly had mixed results. Russian Ministry of Defense

As a memorial service was held for the five workers, they, along with three who survived the blast, were awarded the Order of Courage. Monday's ceremony was held 19 years to the day of a deadly another deadly military incident, the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk cruise missile submarine, a disaster that killed 118 sailors in the Barents Sea in 2000. A separate ceremony was held Monday in Kaliningrad.

While the vessel was ultimately raised and its radiation contained, the earlier wreck of a Soviet-era K-278 Komsomolets attack submarine was found by Norwegian scientists last month to be emitting radiation up to 100,000 times the average amount. That report emerged just over a week after a fire broke out onboard the top-secret, nuclear-powered Losharik deep-sea submersible, killing 14 in what was Russia's deadliest submarine disaster since 20 died from an accidental fire suppression system release in the nuclear-powered attack submarine Nerpa in 2008.

Today on Twitter, President Trump tweeted on the incident. He wrote, "The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian 'Skyfall' explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!"

The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian “Skyfall” explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2019

Despite Russia's troubled nuclear past, the U.S. remains the only country in the world to have used a nuclear weapon in combat. Thursday's explosion fell between the anniversaries of the August 6 and August 9 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 210,000 people, in 1945 in what was the first and last instance of such a device being used in a conflict.