Moscow — Residents of a Russian village near the site of a nuclear accident that killed seven people in Russia’s far north last week were left confused on Tuesday by conflicting reports that they would be evacuated while work is carried out on the site. Several unidentified residents of Nynoksa, in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, told local news website 29.ru that they had been told they would have to leave the village for at least two hours, between 5 and 7 a.m. on Wednesday, and that a train would be provided for them.
The government of Severodvinsk, a city 25 miles away from Nynoksa, seemed to confirm the evacuation ordered to the state-run Interfax news agency.
“We have received a notification… about the planned activities of the military authorities. In this regard, residents of Nynoksa were asked to leave the territory of the village from August 14,” officials were quoted by Interfax as saying.
However, the governor of the Arkhangelsk region, Igor Orlov, dismissed that report in a separate interview with Interfax as “complete nonsense,” saying “no evacuation (is taking place).”
There was no consensus about a possible evacuation on social media channels frequented by both Nyonoksa and Severodvinsk residents. Concerned villagers post comments about “having heard” that they would need to leave, but not finding any official information about it.
Some of them said short-term evacuations were a regular occurrence in their communities, due to the work carried out at the military testing site near the village.
Finally, on Tuesday evening, Interfax quoted the local government of Severodvinsk as saying the military had canceled plans to conduct work on the testing grounds that would have necessitated the evacuation of Nyonoksa.
“We have information that the military canceled their activities tomorrow that required moving residents (out of the village),” an unidentified official at the Severodvinsk administration told the state-run news agency.
The nuclear accident
On Thursday last week an explosion at the testing ground near Nyonoksa left five scientists and two military personnel dead. Immediately after the blast, radiation levels in Severodvinsk spiked to up to 16 times the normal reading, according to the TASS state-run news agency.
Doctors that tended to people injured in the accident were to undergo additional medical examination. Representatives of the Arkhangelsk regional government told TASS on Tuesday that the doctors had requested the additional screening themselves, and it was not compulsory.
Russia’s Defense Ministry initially claimed it was just a failed rocket engine test, but later Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, admitted the test involved a “radioisotope source of energy” — or, as the company’s spokespeople put it in comments to the Fontanka newspaper, “a nuclear battery.”
U.S. intelligence officials believe it “likely” was a failed test of the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, known in Russia as the 9M730 Burevestnik. President Vladimir Putin boasted in a 2018 speech about a new, experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile with virtually unlimited range and the ability to penetrate U.S. missile defense systems.
Who should be worried?
Many Russian and U.S. military analysts have long expressed doubts about whether Skyfall exists, or whether the core technology involved is even viable. The U.S. experimented with similar technology decades ago, but abandoned it as the highly unstable, nuclear-powered missile engines weren’t deemed to be worth the associated risks.
“This accident reminds us how hard this is and how complicated it is, and just because President Putin made a speech talking about six new scary things, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to actually happen or happen any time soon,” Lynn Rusten, at the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative organization, told CBS News on Tuesday.
Rusten said the people who should be most concerned by the explosion in northern Russia, “are the Russian citizens, who should be asking their government ‘why are we doing this?'”
Commenting on the accident Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov would neither confirm nor deny suggestions about a test of a Skyfall missile.
He said the organization that carried out the test “gave information about it and explained the cause of the accident that occurred during testing and, unfortunately for all of us, led to the tragic death of our colleagues. I have nothing to add to that.”
Conflicting reports from Russian officials about the accident over the weekend prompted speculation that the blast might have been more damaging than they were letting on. Some commentators compared the release of information about the explosion to what happened in the immediate wake of the Chernobyl disaster, when it took the authorities several weeks to reveal the truth.
CBSNews.com’s Tucker Reals in London and CBS News’ Christina Ruffini in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.