U.S. Training For Arctic Nuclear Satellite Disaster Amid Russian Weapons Developments

With Russia building floating nuclear reactors and possibly testing nuclear-powered cruise missiles, there are good reasons for this training.

Alaska National Guard

The U.S. military, along with other federal and state authorities, has been training to respond to potentially dangerous releases of radioactive material in and around the Arctic. Though there is no clear indication of a direct link between Russia’s reported tests of nuclear-powered missiles or expanding use of nuclear power in the region, it is hard not to see these exercises in connection with those developments.

Earlier in March 2018, members of the U.S. National Guards from 10 different states arrived at the Donnelly Training Area, situated near the U.S. Army’s Fort Greely in Alaska. Alaska state authorities and members of Canada’s reserve 39 Canadian Brigade Group joined the exercise, nicknamed Arctic Eagle 2018, as well.

The drills included a number of different mock crises, including an overturned fuel truck creating a hazardous material spill, the potential for attacks on the Trans Alaskan Pipeline System, and even cyber attacks. But especially notable was a scenario involving the need to locate a crashed satellite and contain the radiological material it had deposited across a wide area as it plummeted to earth.

“Training in an extreme weather environment tests not only your equipment, but your own physical strength,” 1st Lieutenant Shawnta DiFalco, commander of the Decontamination Element within the Washington Army National Guard’s 792nd Chemical Company, said during the exercise. “The Soldiers had to work through freezing wind, snow and ground ice to set up equipment. Without fail, there are challenges when using decontamination equipment; the cold weather training we received was unmatched in its ability to challenge our capability to do our jobs in an austere environment.”

US Army

A member of the 220th Military Police Company, Colorado Army National Guard, mans a checkpoint in the Donnelly Training Area during Arctic Eagle 2018.

The 792nd Chemical Company is part of a larger Homeland Response Force for Alaska and neighboring regions of the United States, which also includes specialized Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams, military police, and other elements from various states. Air and Army National Guard elements also helped deploy these forces, including via C-17 airlifters. The active duty 95th Chemical Company also contributed a pair of M1135 Stryker Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicles, which carries various equipment to detect and categorize radiological, chemical, and biological hazards, for the exercise.

“The winter is a really challenging time of year to land in Valdez, [Alaska],” Major Laura Grossman, one of the two pilots from the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing that flew C-17s between from Anchorage to the landing area near the Alaskan city of Fairchild during the drills, said. “The runway isn’t plowed, and even if we were able to land, the runway is too slick and wouldn’t allow us to take off.”

US Army

An infogrpahic showing the various capabilities of the M1135 Stryker.

It’s definitely no secret that the U.S. military has become increasing interested in preparing for potential conflicts and other contingencies above and near the Arctic Circle in recent years. As global climate change has shrunk the polar ice cap and otherwise reduced the amount of ice buildup that occurs during certain parts of the year, the region has become increasingly important economically and various countries, especially Russia, have moved to enforce their territorial claims.

“The growing concerns regarding the increased number of nations competing for Arctic resources are well justified,” U.S. Air Force General Lori Robinson, head of U.S. Northern Command, which oversees operations in the region, and the designated “Advocate for Arctic Capabilities” within the Pentagon, reiterated to members of Congress during a hearing in February 2018. “Diminishing sea ice provides opportunities for significantly expanded access to a region that had previously been inaccessible to all but a handful of northern nations.”

US Army

A C-17 from the  Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing sits on the tarmac in Spokane, Washington waiting to pick up elements of the Homeland Response Force during Arctic Eagle 2018.

Also earlier in March 2018, U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces soldiers teamed up to conduct another exercise in Alaska, called Arctic Edge, focused on improving different services’ abilities to work together in the Arctic region. The U.S. Navy, along with foreign allies, has also been in the process of a routine Ice Exercise, or ICEX, demonstrating important submarine capabilities above the Arctic Circle.

And to be fair, the idea of a crashing satellite creating a radiological disaster isn’t an entirely fictional scenario. In 1978, the Soviet Union’s Kosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite, which had a nuclear reactor as its power source, crashed into Canadian territory, touching off an international incident and prompting an expensive response and clean-up operation.

It’s also not the first time the U.S. military has employed the idea of hunting for a radioactive satellite as the basis for training exercises in Alaska. The 2017 iteration of Arctic Eagle also involved this same basic scenario. That same year, soldiers from 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment and 1st Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment went on the look for a mock radioactive space object in another drill above the Arctic Circle, known as Spartan Pegasus.

But U.S. military and other agencies practicing specifically to handle a radiological incident in the region seems even more noteworthy in light of a number of recent events. Most importantly are Russian claims that it has been testing a cruise missile with theoretically unlimited range that uses a nuclear reactor-powered propulsion system in the Arctic. Anonymous U.S. government officials have since told various media outlets that this is true, but that the weapons have been crashing, potentially spreading radioactive material and components.

The Russian government says this video shows its nuclear powered cruise missile during a test.

As we at The War Zone noted previously, even if the Kremlin deemed these tests successful from a research and development perspective, the missiles would still have to be slamming back onto solid ground or into the ocean at the end of their flight by design. The Arctic Edge 2018 scenario specifically included faux radiological releases on land and at sea.

The Russians have also been dramatically expanding their use and plans to employ small and mobile nuclear reactors to support activities in the Arctic. In January 2018, Andrey Petrov, director of Russia’s state-run civil nuclear power operator Rosenergoatom, announced that the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating nuclear power station, would arrive in country's Arctic town of Pevek in June 2019.

The Akademik Lomonosov will be the first of its kind to begin regular operations and Russia is planning to build more of the same design, ostensibly to support resource extraction and other civil efforts in the Arctic. There have been serious concerns about the reliability and safety of these unpowered, reactor-carrying barges in such extreme conditions. But the Kremlin has consistently dismissed those concerns, pointing to its long-standing operation of nuclear-powered icebreakers in the Arctic, which isn't the best example because they too have experienced radiological leaks.

It seems very likely that these power stations, or a similar design, could help power Russia’s plans for a dramatic expansion in its Arctic military facilities, which the country announced in 2014. In April 2017, Russian officials revealed a new, massive base in the region called the Arctkicheski Trilistnik, which translates variously as Arctic Trefoil or Arctic Shamrock.

Rosatom

The Akademik Lomonosov under construction.

This facility is situated on Alexandra Land, an island in the Franz Josef archipelago, north of the Arctic Circle. It has its own power plant to support operations when during the winter months when it is effectively cut off from the mainland, but it is unclear whether it is conventional or nuclear-powered.

In addition, there are reports that Russia has begun to develop and potentially deploy small underwater nuclear reactors in order to power sensors or other equipment for protracted periods of time. The Arctic is a likely site for these units, as Russian forces are looking to expand their undersea capabilities in the region, reportedly including sonar networks to monitor foreign submarine activity.

If any of these nuclear power systems were to fail, it could potentially cause a serious radiological incident that would impact both the United States and Canada. The same procedures American military and other government personnel have been training to employ in response to a crashed satellite would undoubtedly be applicable in those situations, too.

So, while the idea of radioactive space debris might serve as a ready exercise scenario, there are a growing number of very real radiological dangers in the Arctic. Unless the Russians change course, the need to be prepared for a nuclear incident only looks set to become more pronounced in the near future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com