Emergency And Medical Personnel On The Nyonoksa Incident

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 Balloon Juice