clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What caused Russia’s radioactive explosion last week? Possibly a nuclear-powered missile.

The deadly blast underscored the extent of Vladimir Putin’s military ambitions.

President Putin delivers annual address to Federal Assembly of Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a state of the union speech on March 1, 2018. It’s during this address that he unveiled his plans to acquire a nuclear-powered cruise missile.
Marat Abulkhatin/TASS via Getty Images

A mysterious explosion last week in Russia has increased fears of a Chernobyl-like situation — and it may have occurred because Moscow was trying out what could become one of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Last Thursday, an eruption at a missile test site on Russia’s Arctic coast released radiation and killed at least seven people, including five nuclear workers.

Authorities took days to admit what happened, first spreading disinformation to the public before conceding that there was some kind of malfunction with a nuclear reactor.

It appears that the event increased radiation levels by four to 16 times the normal amount, causing nearby residents to scramble to get iodine, which curbs radiation absorbed in their bodies.

Fans of the hit HBO show Chernobyl — and the actual people who lived through that nuclear disaster — no doubt see a familiar pattern. A nuclear explosion (albeit a much smaller one in this case) takes place; affected citizens know little as the government obfuscates the truth; facts leak out; and the government finally admits its mistakes — but by then, it may be too late for some to recover.

“I’m not a critic of the government, but in this situation its behavior is ugly,’’ Dmitry Zhukov, who lives in a city close to the accident’s site, posted on a Russian social media website. “They pretended nothing scary happened.”

But the secrecy about what occurred at the Nyonoksa base in Russia’s northwest may not be solely about keeping a nuclear disaster under wraps. Instead, it may have been about hiding a high-profile but failing military program from adversaries like the United States.

What caused the explosion in Russia?

One of the main theories, experts and US intelligence officials say, is that the explosion was the result of a new nuclear-propelled missile test gone wrong.

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a new cruise missile that can travel any distance because it uses nuclear propulsion instead of conventional fuel, and can evade any defenses since it flies low and moves around. Most missile defense systems depend on having a good idea of where the incoming weapon is going. Without that reliability, it becomes nearly impossible to destroy — which means it has a great chance of hitting its target.

That weapon, known as the Burevestnik in Russia or the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO countries, would be the centerpiece of Moscow’s ability to threaten faraway targets like the US. It’s therefore no surprise the Kremlin might want to hide that the game-changing weapon not only failed a test but also caused a nuclear scare.

Other experts tell me they aren’t so sure that’s what happened, noting Russia might not test the missile near people. They also suggested that some other weapons may have combusted.

Whatever the case, President Donald Trump tweeted Monday night that “the United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia.” He also appeared to suggest the US secretly has a more powerful weapon that the one Moscow may have just tested. That seems extremely unlikely, especially since America scrapped plans to build a nuclear-propelled missile decades ago.

Between the mystery and Trump’s bravado, then, it’s unlikely that interest in the fallout of this latest secretive Russian disaster will wane anytime soon.

The case for a nuclear-powered missile causing the explosion

Fabian Hintz, who has tracked the situation using open source intelligence for the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, gave me four reasons why he and others believe the nuclear-propelled weapon was the cause of accident.

First, satellite imagery of the site offers some clues. Pictures analyzed by experts show that there are structures — a shelter and blue shipping containers — at Nyonoksa similar to another location where the missile was tested. There are also photos of an offshore platform near the site with black scorch marks, a good indicator that it suffered from fire and/or an explosion.

Second, the personnel at the site worked on nuclear matters. On Saturday, Russia’s nuclear energy agency Rosatom put out a statement saying that five of its employees working at a military site in that region were killed, while three others “received injuries and burns of varying severity” due to an “accident.” Two days later, family members buried the five men.

Third, that same Rosatom statement also noted that the employees’ project included “engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources in a liquid propulsion system.” And then on Monday, the scientific director of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center confirmed that nuclear scientists at the site worked on “small-sized energy sources using radioactive fissile materials” at the time of the blast.

Missiles don’t require nuclear power to move; they just need regular fuel. For nuclear scientists to be at a missile-testing site and working on nuclear-related stuff indicates that they may have been assigned to the new weapon Putin talked about.

Finally, the presence of the Serebryanka — a nuclear fuel cargo ship — near the location of the explosion raises suspicions. Hinz told me that this ship, which is designed specifically to carry nuclear materials around, was “present at other Burevestnik tests.” Indeed, it was seen last year recovering crashed Burevestniks in the Arctic. It’s therefore possible that the vessel was doing the same job in the same location this time around.

Put these four pieces together and “it really all adds up” that the nuclear-propelled missile is to blame for the explosion, Hinz told me.

But some are skeptical of this theory despite the compelling evidence.

Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russia’s military, told me the Burevestinik had mostly been tested elsewhere in Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean much farther away from everyday people. “Bringing it closer to population centers makes absolutely no sense,” he said.

He added that the radiation released by the weapon would’ve been much higher had it actually exploded. What’s more, it’s possible other secretive weapons Russia aims to develop — like an unmanned, nuclear-powered underwater drone — could also be to blame. “All options seem to be open,” he said.

Regardless, Putin has said he wants to develop this missile, which means the question now is how long it might take him to get it. The good news is that the answer is likely “never.”

Why Russia likely won’t succeed in creating a nuclear-powered missile

One has to remember that making a missile work — let alone one that doesn’t exist yet — is actual rocket science. It’s an extremely complicated process, and disasters that put people in jeopardy can occur while testing new weaponry. It’s therefore quite the sacrifice to design and develop a weapon like the Burevestnik, especially for those building it and, on occasion, for those who live near testing sites.

The US knows this well. It tried to develop a nuclear-powered missile in an experimental program called Project Pluto during the Cold War, but engineers quickly found that it would be too hard to make function.

Here’s why: This kind of projectile uses what’s known as a ramjet engine. At its most basic level, it takes in air so fast that it makes the engine work, and a nuclear reactor inside the missile would heat the air in the jet engine and expel it, propelling the weapon forward. But getting all the right parts in there to make it function became an insurmountable problem, partly because it would add too much weight to the missile and it wouldn’t give the weapon enough power to operate anyway.

“There are basic and fundamental engineering considerations that suggest that a nuclear-powered cruise missile with a very small power source will be very difficult or impossible to build,” Cheryl Rofer, a chemist who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote in a Monday blog post.

Moscow may therefore realize that making this weapon is too hard and scrap the program. Instead, Putin may choose to beef up his already considerable missile arsenal with more conventional weapons. After all, they’re just as dangerous and threatening to the Kremlin’s enemies.

The nuclear-propelled weapon is “just like the Ferrari of cruise missiles,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told me after Putin’s announcement last year. “It sounds cool, but a Toyota will still get you there.”

Last week’s explosion, then, was potentially an unfortunate deadly setback for Putin’s military ambitions. But he can still find other, easier ways to ultimately get what he wants.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.