In this grab taken from a footage provided by the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM press service, a Russian military band prepare to attend the funerals of five Russian nuclear engineers killed by a rocket explosion in Sarov, the closed city, located 370 kilometers (230 miles) east of Moscow, which has served as a base for Russia's nuclear weapons program since the late 1940s, Russia, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. Russia's Rosatom state nuclear concern said Thursday's explosion at a military testing range in northwestern Russia occurred while the engineers were testing a "nuclear isotope power source" for a rocket engine, a tragedy that fueled radiation fears and raised new questions about a secretive weapons program. (Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM via AP)
Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation/AP
In this grab taken from a footage provided by the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM press service, a Russian military band prepare to attend the funerals of five Russian nuclear engineers killed by a rocket explosion in Sarov, the closed city, located 370 kilometers (230 miles) east of Moscow, which has served as a base for Russia's nuclear weapons program since the late 1940s, Russia, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. Russia's Rosatom state nuclear concern said Thursday's explosion at a military testing range in northwestern Russia occurred while the engineers were testing a "nuclear isotope power source" for a rocket engine, a tragedy that fueled radiation fears and raised new questions about a secretive weapons program. (Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM via AP)
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Officials in Russia’s northern city of Arkhangelsk have acknowledged that one of the doctors who helped treat victims of a recent mysterious explosion at a military test site was found to have a radioactive isotope in his body.

Despite the doctor’s exposure to patients from an area where a short-term radiation spike was recorded, the local health ministry blamed the trace amounts of the isotope on bad seafood.

“Cesium-137… has the feature of accumulating in fish, mushrooms, lichens, algae,” the statement posted on the local government’s website reads. “With a certain degree of probability, we can assume that this element got into the human body through the products of food.”

Riga-based investigative outlet Meduza reported Thursday that an employee at an Arkhangelsk hospital was told the exposure likely occurred during a holiday in Thailand. “You just ate Fukushima crabs there,” the employee described officials as saying to the doctor, according to Meduza.

Radiation poisoning at missile test site?

The explosive incident at the Nyonoksa missile test site on August 8 took the lives of at least five nuclear specialists working for Rosatom state corporation. The company said at the time the engineers were testing a “nuclear isotope power source” for a rocket engine and the blast threw them into the sea.

Funerals, on August 13, for the five Russian nuclear engineers killed by a rocket explosion in Sarov.
ROSATOM via AP
Funerals, on August 13, for the five Russian nuclear engineers killed by a rocket explosion in Sarov.

According to the local ministry of health, more than 110 first responders were examined; some were even taken to Moscow’s specialized facilities for additional screening, shedding new light on the scale of the incident.

Tatyana Rusinova, the acting minister of health in Arkhangelsk, said that, apart from the doctor with cesium-137, “No radioactive contamination of clothing or body surfaces was detected.”

Investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta later reported that two of the workers died from radiation poisoning.

Reports claiming that dozens of medical workers were exposed to radiation have been circulating for a while. Several independent news outlets published anonymous accounts of doctors angered by the fact they were not warned about radiation and lacked basic protective gear.

The Kremlin swatted the reports away, with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov questioning the veracity of the sources.

Russian officials question media reports

“I’m not aware of it, I do not know what doctors you are talking about. It is necessary to know specifically what doctors are mentioned, who they are,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

When pressed to comment further, Peskov accused the media of attempting to “distort reality.”

“Have you not tried to look at the situation from a different side?” Peskov said. “The way the situation unfolds makes it seem like somebody intentionally wants to escalate the media coverage around this, distort reality and present the situation as if there are reasons to be worried about the danger.”

But one of the doctors employed at Arkhangelsk regional hospital – Igor Semin, a cardiovascular surgeon – came out publicly, slamming the authorities for putting the lives of his colleagues at risk.

“Many were let down: young guys, the oldest of whom was 31 years old and collapsed from radiation in a day, the population of Severodvinsk… doctors, my colleagues who found themselves in front of the victims with empty hands, not even a respirator,” Semin wrote on his page on a social networking site called Vkontakte. “No one said anything, did not warn anybody – they threw them under a bus and let us sort it out.”