Russia military officials issued conflicting reports this week about whether residents in areas near a mysterious nuclear explosion must evacuate.
The confusing orders came about five days after an explosion at a military testing site killed at least seven people and caused a spike in radiation levels in a nearby city. The Russian Ministry of Defense initially said that a liquid-propellant rocket engine exploded and no harmful emissions were released.
The New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence officials have stated they believe the explosion may have been associated with a prototype weapon know by NATO as SSC-X-9 Skyfall. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in March 2018 the nation was developing this cruising missile, which could potentially take a nuclear weapon to any point on the planet, as it is powered in part by a nuclear reactor. Putin also said the missile will eventually be able to evade U.S. missile defense systems.
“There’s really no other possible scenario for this. All the pieces fit together,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear weapons expert and politics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told NBC News, expressing certainty that the explosion had to be related to the Skyfall prototype. “It’s very difficult to imagine that it’s anything else besides this.”
Late Friday, Russian nuclear agency Rosatom finally admitted that an explosion at one of its facilities created a cloud of radiation that spread across the region.
Then on Tuesday, Russian news outlet 29.ru reported that several residents of nearby Nynoksa, in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, said military officials instructed them to leave their village on Wednesday between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. local time and informed them that trains would be available to take them away.
Russian media outlet Interfax also reported, “Nyonoksa residents advised to leave village temporary due to work at range where blast occurred.”
According to 29.ru, officials told the residents they must evacuate so the military can perform some sort of work at the military training site, and that the evacuation was not related to the mysterious explosions.
But throughout the day, the messaging seemed to waver. As CBS News reported, governor of the Arkhangelsk region, Igor Orlov, told Interfax the evacuation was “complete nonsense.” Social media channels for residents of Nyonoksa and the nearby Severodvinsk were both giving mixed messages about evacuation, according to CBS News.
Several hours after the initial reports about a mandated evacuation, Interfax and 29.ru reported that the military plans had been canceled and that residents no longer needed to leave the area.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.