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Internationally Maintained Radiation Monitors Go Offline Following Russian Explosion

Aug 20, 2019
Originally published on August 21, 2019 7:29 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An update now on a story from Russia, where several radiation detectors are mysteriously offline. The detectors are maintained by an international organization, and they have been down since a deadly accident involving an experimental nuclear-powered Russian missile.

Joining me to discuss what is going on is NPR's science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, there.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, there.

KELLY: So what is going on? What's going on with these detectors? What are they supposed to do when they're working?

BRUMFIEL: So these detectors are designed to sniff out radiation that's in the air. They're scattered across Russia, and they're part of a global network that's run by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. It's a group that monitors for nuclear weapons testing all over the world.

Now let me give you a sense of the timeline here. So this accident with the missile happened on August 8. On August 10, the two detectors closest to the missile test site went down. On August 13, three more detectors went down.

KELLY: All right, so timing is interesting. What do we know about this missile and this accident?

BRUMFIEL: So Putin unveiled the missile in a big speech last year. And the expert opinion in the U.S. side at least is that it's a crazy idea. So this is...

KELLY: Expert term there, yeah.

BRUMFIEL: ...This is a nuclear missile, nuclear armed, but it's also nuclear powered. And what that means is it effectively has infinite range. It can fly up in the air forever and then come down via any route and land on its target. NATO has called it Skyfall, which seems kind of fitting.

But this missile has also been having problems. There's indication it isn't working. Last year, a big test failed. This latest test, there seems to have been some sort of explosion. Five people are reported dead. There was also a reported radiation spike in a nearby town. That radiation level has gone back down to normal. And earlier this week, President Putin of Russia said there's nothing to worry about. Radiation levels are completely normal.

KELLY: Although, I suppose how would we know since the radiation detectors are offline? I mean, I hear Russia nuclear accident, and I think Chernobyl. Should I?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, there are echoes of Chernobyl for sure. But this is probably not a Chernobyl-like event in the sense that Chernobyl was a giant power station full of nuclear fuel. This is a missile. It's designed to fly through the air. So there's just a lot less material there. It's much smaller, probably not a health hazard.

KELLY: Well, if that is true, what motive might someone, might Russia have for shutting these detectors down?

BRUMFIEL: Well, what I've been hearing is these detectors are extraordinarily sensitive, and they could pick up the radioactive elements that were used to make the missile. That might provide some clues about how it actually works, which is a real mystery. No one knows how this Skyfall missile actually is supposed to fly, even though apparently it doesn't.

KELLY: And as for the detectors, do we have any sense of whether or when they will come back online?

BRUMFIEL: That's really going to be up to the Russians. Although these are international detectors, they are operated by Russian operators. A Russian Foreign Ministry official said the operation is, quote, "entirely voluntary." So we'll see when they bring them back online. Although, three have - no, two have already come back online.

KELLY: Two are back online. And we'll watch and see what happens with the others. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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