Russia’s response to nuclear disaster: lie, cover up — and put the world at risk via The Hill


Russia is prone to nuclear catastrophes. But these disasters don’t place Russians alone at risk. Sooner or later, they could place the world in danger, as one very nearly did three decades ago.

A 1960 weapons test killed many senior military officials; Moscow covered up that disaster. Then, in 1986, Russian authorities first tried to cover up the Chernobyl power plant explosion even as it threatened hundreds of thousands of lives across Russia and Europe and eventually killed 4,000 to 16,000 people, according to conservative estimates. 

In 2000, they again covered up and published misleading reports on the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster. Then, last month, the nuclear-powered Losharik submarine, whose mission remains classified, caught fire, killing 14 senior officers.   

And now, on Aug. 8, a nuclear explosion at the Nenoska weapons-testing range has killed at least seven people, including senior scientists. This latest catastrophe appears to have arisen from a testing failure with the so-called Burevestnik — “Thunderbird” or “Stormy Petrel” (NATO reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall) — nuclear-powered cruise missile.

With radiation levels spiking in the region, Russian officials initially ordered the evacuation of one village — six days after the incident — and then reportedly canceled it. They have closed a portion of the nearby White Sea to civilian ships.


The first common denominator of these nuclear crises is instinctive, pervasive official mendacity and secrecy. These behavioral reactions to crises are ingrained in Russian bureaucracy, where one survives by avoiding responsibility and hiding the truth from the boss. In all cases — Chernobyl, the Losharik, and now the Nenoska debacle — local and central authorities not only hid critical details from domestic and foreign audiences, they actively lied as to what was going on.  


Third, this episode, like so many other nuclear tragedies and so much of Russian history, shows the elites’ callous disregard for the welfare, interests and lives of the people. Twenty years ago Anatol Lieven, at the Carnegie Endowment, observed that Russian officials treat their “subjects” (not “citizens”) as less than human beings. Stalin memorably observed that we still have not learned to value the human factor. Clearly, neither has Putin’s government. 

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5 Responses to Russia’s response to nuclear disaster: lie, cover up — and put the world at risk via The Hill

  1. yukimiyamotodepaul says:

    Is this a commentary about the US? or Japan? It seems that, in facing anything related to radiation spill, any government seems so identical in handling the information.

  2. japan times says:

    The order to work through the night in such dangerous circumstances was “very unusual,” according to one of the commanding officers who was at the scene. It made the team members realize how severe the situation was.

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