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Russian President Vladimir Putin (bottom right) delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow in March 2018 while a screen shows a newly developed cruise missile. Photo: EPA-EFE

Responding to Donald Trump’s boast, Russia says its missile programme beats US’ despite fatal explosion

  • Five Russian scientists died in failed test that prompted US president to brag about American superiority
  • Moscow cancels planned evacuation of town near offshore site where accident took place

Russia says it is far ahead of the United States in developing new nuclear-powered missiles, despite a failed test that prompted US President Donald Trump to boast of American superiority in the field.

President Vladimir Putin “has repeatedly said that Russian developments in this area surpass the level achieved by other countries, and are quite unique”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday, in response to a question on Trump’s tweet.

US officials have said repeatedly in the past year that its military is working on such programmes, so Trump’s statement offers no new information, he said.

A blast in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region on Thursday killed five atomic scientists during the test of a missile engine that used “isotope power sources” on an offshore platform in the White Sea.

A German activist wears a Vladimir Putin mask as he holds a mock missile during a demonstration against the ending of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in front of the American Embassy in Berlin. Photo: EPA-EFE

Trump later tweeted that the US “is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia” and added that “we have similar, though more advanced, technology”, without giving more details.

Trump’s comment appeared to confirm speculation in Russian media that the weapon being tested was the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, known in Russia as the Burevestnik.

Putin introduced the nuclear-powered cruise missile to the world in a brief animated segment during his state-of-the-nation address last year.

Radiation levels in the port city of Severodvinsk, near the site of the failed test, reached as high as 16 times normal immediately after the incident, according to the state meteorological service.

Gamma radiation measured at six of eight testing stations in the city of 180,000 ranged from four to 16 times the normal rate of 0.11 microsieverts per hour, with one observation point showing 1.78 microsieverts per hour, Roshydromet said in a statement.

People gather on Monday for the funerals of five Russian nuclear engineers killed by a rocket explosion. Photo: Rosatom via AP

The maximum reported level of radiation would be harmless and on a par with a dental X-ray, according to Jonathan Cobb, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association.

The radiation levels at the six stations declined steeply within half an hour and were close to normal after 2½ hours, according to Roshydromet.

Severodvinsk is about 40km (25 miles) from the offshore platform where the explosion occurred.

US, Russia rip up cold war-era nuclear missile treaty

The Defence Ministry initially reported two were killed in the accident, which it said involved testing of a liquid-fuelled missile engine. The ministry did not mention the nuclear element.

News of the explosion set off in nearby cities and towns a run on iodine, a form of which is believed to help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation.

Norway said it had stepped up radiation monitoring after the incident but had not detected anything abnormal.

Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority said it did not find an increase in radiation after the incident.

The military planned and then cancelled activities that would have required the evacuation of residents of Nyonoksa, the town next to the offshore site where the explosion took place, the state-run Tass news service reported, citing a local official.

Russians killed in missile test blast were working on ‘new weapons’

Previously, a local news site reported that the town would be evacuated from 5am to 7am on Wednesday.

Local activists remained wary about the government’s disclosures.

“The authorities still haven’t provided enough information about the full spectrum of radiation that may have been released,” said Rashid Alimov, the head of Greenpeace Russia’s Energy Campaign.

“They need to publish more comprehensive data on the event before we can know if the local population faces danger.”