By Andrew E. Kramer
MOSCOW — A mystery explosion at a Russian weapons testing range involved radioactive materials, the authorities admitted on Saturday, as the blast’s admitted death toll rose and signs of a creeping radiation emergency, or at the least fear of one, grew harder to mask.
In a statement released at 1 a.m. Saturday, Russia’s nuclear energy company, Rosatom, said five employees had died, in addition to the two military personnel previously confirmed dead, as a result of a test on Thursday morning involving “isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit.”
With information scarce, residents in cities near the accident site in Russia’s far north were taking no chances. On Friday, there was a run on pharmacies for medicines containing iodine, believed to be of some help against radiation poisoning, the Russian news media reported. Pharmacies in Arkhangelsk reportedly ran out.
A news site, Baza, released a video it said showed ambulances delivering injured people to a Moscow hospital. The vehicle doors were sealed with plastic sheeting, apparently to prevent the release of contamination from the patient’s bodies, and the drivers wore white protective suits.
A Russian maritime authority, the Administration of Western Arctic Ports, announced on Thursday that shipping would be prohibited for a month in Dvina Bay, which is in an area of the White Sea close to the military range where the explosion took place.
Then on Friday, the Russian news media reported that a specialized ship used for collecting and storing liquid nuclear waste from the country’s nuclear-powered icebreaker program had sailed into the area.
One new weapon Mr. Putin had discussed was a globe-spanning cruise missile called Burevestnik or the Petrel, named for the far-flying seabird. It would have an unlimited range thanks to a nuclear propulsion unit, he said. Mr. Putin said the device had already been tested.
It’s unclear how far along Russia is with its new weapons. In announcing their development, Mr. Putin had shown only a cartoonish animation. It illustrated a missile looping gently around the world’s oceans and striking the United States after flying near Antarctica.
The United States abandoned publicly acknowledged research on using nuclear energy to power aviation in the 1960s.