AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There's still a lot of secrecy around an accident that killed at least five people in Russia's Arctic Circle last week. Sketchy information from Russian authorities has raised fears about possible nuclear contamination, and it's fueled speculation that an experimental supermissile could have been involved. NPR's Lucian Kim has more from Moscow.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The first official reports of an accident off Russia's Arctic coast last Thursday were contradictory and terse. Local authorities in Severodvinsk, 600 miles north of Moscow, reported the spike in radiation levels, but Russia's defense ministry said no radiation had leaked. Comparisons with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster were inevitable, even if last week's accident appears to have been on a much more limited scale.
SARAH BIDGOOD: People have become very panicky because the way that the information has been released and disseminated has made it hard for people who are not in the know to figure out exactly what is going on.
KIM: That's Sarah Bidgood of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. She's one of the many foreign experts who's been trying to piece together what really happened. Over the weekend, Russia's nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, said an explosion had taken place during testing of a nuclear isotope power source for a rocket engine. Finally, top managers at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center went public in a TV interview. They confirmed that five of their employees had been killed and three hospitalized in a test that had been prepared for about a year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VYACHESLAV SOLOVYOV: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: Vyacheslav Solovyov, the center's scientific director, said specialists were doing their best to understand the accident's cause as well as its full scope. On Monday, funerals were held for the five engineers in Sarov, a city that, as Russia's center for nuclear weapons research, is closed to outsiders.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KIM: A military band played the Russian national anthem, and an honor guard fired a salute.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUNITIONS FIRING)
KIM: The head of Rosatom said the best way of remembering the engineers would be to continue work on new types of weapons. Exactly what they were testing is unclear, though Sarah Bidgood says she thinks she knows.
BIDGOOD: So what we know is that they were part of the testing program for what we believe is an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile. That's the premise that we are operating under.
KIM: Last year, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was working on a whole new generation of smart weapons that could penetrate American missile defenses. He also mentioned that Russian scientists were developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile with practically unlimited range.
Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.