Is Russia Hiding Another Chernobyl?

Breaking news from Russia's frozen Northwest, where a total of four nuclear-monitoring stations have been silenced. The Wall Street Journal says that's twice as many as last week, "heightening concerns among observers that Russia is trying to hide evidence from an explosion at a missile-test site this month."

Some background.

Russia has been developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik or "Petrel" missile. To be clear, that's a missile powered by nuclear fission, not a missile "merely" carrying a nuclear warhead. On August 8, it's believed that a Petrel exploded during testing, killing five employees of Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy producer. Three others were injured. That we know of.

As the Kremlin is wont to do, they at first downplayed the incident, claiming that the amount of radiation released "was less than that of a medical X-ray." Although as The National Interest noted on Saturday, "the village near the explosion has been ordered to evacuate, raising memories of the Chernobyl incident." The same report casts some doubt whether a Petrel cruise missile was involved at all:

Edward Geist, an expert on Russian nuclear history at the RAND Corp. think tank, cautioned that it is premature to assume that the Petrel was the culprit.

“The case that this may be associated with the nuclear cruise missile is pretty circumstantial,” Geist told The National Interest. For example, the site of the accident is a closed Russian military town that is “associated with the testing of all kinds of missiles.”

Perhaps there was an accident involving Petrel. Or, perhaps there was an accident involving another weapon that damaged a Petrel. Or, maybe Russia was testing some other system: among Putin’s much-touted wonder weapons is the nuclear-powered Poseidon robotic torpedo.

If you're having flashbacks to 1986 -- I was a junior in high school, very much the young Cold Warrior, and remember this quite clearly -- so am I. The Soviet Union's outdated and poorly-designed nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine, suffered an open-air reactor core fire following an explosion on April 26 of that year. Heroic efforts were undertaken to avert an even greater disaster, yet despite nearly 100 deaths at or near the scene, the Kremlin tried to hide the fact that a huge nuclear reactor had just blown up in a small town not far from the capital of the country's second-most important republic. Ever since, the town had been the "Chernobyl Exclusion Zone," and uninhabited.

Two days after the explosion, radiation detectors went wild at Sweden's Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, more than 600 miles away. The Swedes contacted Soviet authorities behind the scenes, who at first denied that anything was wrong. Days later, Moscow was still downplaying to the West what had happened, all the while evacuating more than 100,000 locals as quietly as possible.

So what really happened on August 8 at Russia's Nyonoksa testing ground on the White Sea? Nobody who knows is saying much, which, given Russia's history, might be cause enough for alarm. Although clearly this most recent accident can't be as bad as Chernobyl, because there's just no way to cover up an explosion and radiation leak of that size for this long.

But we can probably draw two conclusions with some small measure of confidence.

The first is, whatever happened, it's certainly worse than Moscow will admit, given what we know about how Putin's Russia operates, and also what we just learned from that WSJ report. The second is that Putin's Russia, just like the Communist Soviet Union that preceded it, simply isn't capable of playing with matches of this size without putting their neighbors, or perhaps the world, at risk.

It's time to stop playing the I'm-Still-a-Superpower game, Mr. Putin, because you just aren't up to it.