September 19, 2019

Russia's Absurd, Explosive Strategy

“The United States and Russia are entering a new arms race, and the costs aren’t just monetary. On August 8, Russian civilians around the remote village of Nyonoksa found themselves downwind of a military nuclear propulsion experiment gone wrong in the White Sea, just outside the Arctic Circle. According to the Russian ministry of defense, a liquid propellant rocket engine had gone awry and exploded.

This by itself was alarming, but not unprecedented: Liquid propellants, long preferred in many Russian missiles, are volatile and have exploded when prematurely brought into contact with oxidizing agents. What made this month’s explosion more significant was Russia’s acknowledgement that a “nuclear isotope power source” was involved. Seven people—including five scientists from Sarov, one of Russia’s secret nuclear complexes—were killed in the explosion. Russian state weather monitors reported heightened background radiation levels around the site and beyond. A press release from a Norwegian monitoring agency a week after the incident noted that “tiny amounts of radioactive iodine”—a common byproduct of the sort of nuclear fission that might take place in a reactor—had been detected in northern Norway.

The exact sort of weapon Russia may have been testing is unknown, but the balance of evidence points to a probable culprit: the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. Nuclear nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis and his team of researchers out in Monterey, California, have done much of the work in compiling this evidence, which includes the presence of a nuclear fuel carrier ship that was known to have been involved in recovery efforts after a previous failed test of the missile. Known in NATO countries as the SSC-X-9 SKYFALL, the Burevestnik’s atomic propulsion is said by Russian state media to give the missile “almost unlimited range, non-predictable trajectory and high air defense penetration capacity.””

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