Russian doctors outraged in wake of shrouded military base explosion

"No one — neither hospital directors, nor Health Ministry officials, nor regional officials or the governor — notified staff that the patients were radioactive," said one surgeon.

August 18, 2019 17:58
3 minute read.
Severodvinsk in northern Russia

Severodvinsk in northern Russia. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PEROV V.)

Staff at a hospital near a Russian military site where an explosion occurred under unclear circumstances expressed outrage that they weren't notified that three patients who arrived to the hospital afterwards were radioactive, according to the Moscow Times.

Three injured men arrived naked and wrapped in translucent plastic bags to the Arkhangelsk Regional Clinical Hospital in Russia's far north, which raised the staff's suspicion, but they were only told that there had been an explosion at a nearby military base with no further details.
"No one — neither hospital directors, nor Health Ministry officials, nor regional officials or the governor — notified staff that the patients were radioactive," said one surgeon. "Nobody told them to protect themselves."

After the explosion, radiation levels spiked to as much as 20 times the normal level for about 30 minutes in the city of Severodvinsk. An announcement by the city government about the spike in radiation was taken offline, according to The New York Times.

Russia's state nuclear agency Rosatom reported that five staff members were killed in the accident involving "isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit." Two military personnel were also killed in the incident.

A military official told the Russian TASS news agency that the explosion happened on a platform at sea and threw several people into the water. The search for survivors delayed the announcement of information about the incident.

Russian authorities have released very little details amid many contradictions, reported the Moscow Times, comparing the response to the state's behavior during an accident in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Initially, officials denied that there was any radiation spike at all and then ordered that a village near the military site be evacuated. They then denied that such an order had ever been issued, causing confusion among locals who hurried to buy up iodine, a chemical used to limit harm caused by radiation exposure.

Federal Security Service (FSB) agents had all staff who worked with the patients at the Arkhangelsk hospital sign non-disclosure agreements preventing them from discussing what happened.

"They weren’t forced to sign them, but when three FSB agents arrive with a list and ask for those on the list to sign, few will say no," said one doctor.

The doctors also questioned why state personnel exposed to radiation weren't sent to a military hospital instead of a civilian one.

Caesium-137, a radioactive isotope that is a byproduct of the nuclear fission of uranium-235, was found in the muscle tissue of one of the doctors from the hospital.

"Exposure to Caesium-137 is quite preventable – all you need to do is wash the patient really well,” explained Yuri Dubrova, an expert on the effects of radiation on the body at the University of Leicester. “But the doctors were made vulnerable to radiation because they hadn’t been told what had happened."

On August 9, Russian media reported that the men injured in the explosion were brought to Moscow for radiation sickness treatment. According to the doctors from the Arkhangelsk hospital, two of the patients died before reaching Moscow.

"Every rule was broken,” said one doctor. “Why were these patients brought to a civilian hospital and not a military one? Why were staff not told to implement proper safety measures? Why were paramedics allowed to transfer them without wearing the right protective gear?"

"It's happening again. Undoubtedly not on the same scale... but the same delay in admitting the truth," tweeted the producer of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl after the explosion. "33 years and counting since Chernobyl, and some lessons still haven't been learned."


"Thirty-three years later and our government hasn’t learned a thing," said one Arkhangelsk doctor in response to the tweet. "They keep trying to hide the truth." 

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