Evidence Grows That Russia's Nuclear-Powered Doomsday Missile Was What Blew Up Last Week (Updated)

Seven personnel from a major nuclear weapons research laboratory died in the mysterious incident at a test site in northwestern Russia.

Russian Ministry of Defense

Rumors and speculation continue to swirl around a radiological accident last week at a missile test site in northwestern Russia even as officials held a memorial service today for those who died in the incident. The Kremlin has now acknowledged that the incident killed at least seven scientists and other personnel from a major state nuclear research laboratory, who were working on a system that included a small nuclear reactor at the time. This same lab is linked to the development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile called Burevestnik and U.S. intelligence officials are reportedly increasingly of the view that one of these weapons, or a test article related to it, exploded in this mishap.

Late on Aug. 11, 2019, Valentin Kostiukov, the director of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center-All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics, also known by the acronym RFNC-VNIIEF, along with the institute's scientific director Vyacheslav Solovyev and deputy scientific director Aleksandr Chernyshev, held a televised press briefing regarding the accident. RFNC-VNIIEF falls under Russia's top nuclear Corporation, Rosatom, which first admitted its involvement in the incident at the Nyonoksa missile test site in the country's Arkhangelsk region and that the explosion had occured during work on a system that included a nuclear "isotope power source," on Aug. 9, 2019.

"The death of our staff members is a bitter loss for the nuclear center and the Rosatom state corporation. The researchers are national heroes," Kostyukov said, adding he had recommended that this individual pothumously receive state awards and honors. "They were the elite of the Russian federal nuclear center and sometimes they were carrying out tests in extremely difficult conditions."

Neither Kostyukov, nor the other two representatives from the RFNC-VNIIEF, offered any details about what specifically the scientists had been working on. "One of the lines [of research and development] is the creation of sources of thermal or electric energy using radioactive materials, including fissile materials and radioisotope materials," Solovyev said, also noting work on small nuclear reactors.

Solovyev continued on to point out that there are potential military and civilian applications of such developments both on earth and in space, specifically highlighting the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Kilopower program as an example of a non-military endeavor occurring elsewhere in the world. The U.S. military is also investigating a number of small nuclear reactor designs as possible battlefield power sources, projects The War Zone has explored previously in-depth.

VNIIEF could certainly be working on small nuclear reactors for various applications. Given the Kilopower reference, there is the possibility that the "isotope power source" in question may have been a radioisotope thermoelectric generator or a small nuclear reactor for use on satellites or other spacecraft. The liquid fuel rocket motor, which reportedly was the component of the overall system that actually exploded, might point to some sort of launch vehicle that could have supported a test to see how a new generator or reactor design might respond to the stresses of getting blasted into orbit.

However, there are various additional details that continue to point to the nebulous Burevestnik program. The U.S. Intelligence Community, which would have access to additional sources of information not available to the public, is reportedly increasingly of this view, as well, according to report on Aug. 12, 2019, from The New York Times.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin first revealed this weapon, also known to NATO as the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, in a speech in March 2018. Subsequent reports, citing U.S. intelligence officials, suggested that Russians had been testing it for since at least 2017, unsuccessfully, in Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the country's Arctic region that served as a nuclear weapon proving ground in the past.

Details remain scarce about Burevestnik and how it works, but the most prominent working theory is that its main propulsion source is a nuclear ramjet. A weapon in this configuration would use rocket motors – potentially liquid-fueled, which would explain the source of the explosion in this accident – to boost it to the optimal speed for the ramjet to work. After that, air would pass over the nuclear reactor and get heated before passing through an exhaust nozzle at the rear to produce thrust.

This, in principle, would give the weapon virtually unlimited range and a maximum flying time measured in days or weeks. Another possibility might be that it uses a nuclear thermal rocket, which uses a liquid fuel source instead of air, but this would have a more limited flight time compared to an air-breathing design given its use of a more finite fuel source. Reports of "liquid fuel" may also point to a liquid fuel reactor design.

Whatever the case, the officials from the RFNC-VNIIEF said that preparations had been underway for the test at Nyonoksa, also sometimes written Nenoksa, for around a year. This would line up with observations, including from commercial satellite imagery, that researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California had made in the same timeframe. 

Satellite imagery indicated that Russia had at least begun dismantling the suspected location of the Burevestnik tests – located in the first place by analyzing a video, seen above, of a purported test launch of one of the missiles that the Kremlin released with Putin's speech – in Novaya Zemlya between July and August 2018. A very similar looking facility subsequently appeared in imagery from Nyonoksa.

This adds to other existing evidence that suggests a Burevestnik, or at least a test article related to that program, was the source of the accident. This includes the presence of the nuclear fuel carrier ship Serebryanka, which typically carries nuclear fuel rods or similar cargoes, near Nyonoksa at the time of the incident. This ship would be a good choice for transporting Burevestnik and was reportedly among the ships Russia had sent out on a mission in 2018 to recover one or more of the missiles that had crashed in the waters around Novaya Zemlya.

Still, much remains unknown about the test and the actual severity of the accident, which reportedly led to at least a brief spike in radiation and involved a blast powerful enough to register at monitoring sites that exist to watch for signs of nuclear weapon testing. The Russian Ministry of Defense has since claimed that there was no radiation leak and has compelled local authorities to take down online notices about the recorded increased background radiation. So far, there have been no similar reports from other monitoring organizations in the region.

Beyond that, it is unclear how much progress the Burevestnik program may have made toward anything approaching a viable weapon system, if that is even possible. The United States experimented with a similar concept during the Cold War, but abandoned it due to the complexities surrounding developing a reactor small enough to fit in a reasonably sized missile and the dangers inherent to the design. Most problematically, the lightened, miniaturized reactor would have been unshielded, meaning that the weapon's exhaust would have spewed out dangerous amounts of radioactive material the entire way to its target.

"It’s unclear if someone in the Russian defense industrial bureaucracy may have managed to convince a less technically informed leadership that this is a good idea, but the United States tried this, quickly discovered the limitations and risks, and abandoned it with good reason," Ankit Panda, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, told The Times. The Kremlin may also have simply initiated the Burevestnik project with the intent of using it, and the possibility of stopping the development, as a bargaining chip in future arms control negotiations with the United States. 

Whether or not this accident actually involved Burevestnik, it will certainly open up the Kremlin to increasing criticism over that project, as well as other projects involving nuclear power given the country's already spotty safety record. Russia is also working on a nuclear-powered nuclear-armed torpedo and an ostensibly civilian-focused floating nuclear power plant, both of which have already been controversial developments. The floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov is reportedly on its way right now to the city of Pevek in Russia's Far East.

The Russian government has been providing a small, but a steady trickle of information about this recent accident at Nyonoksa, but the Kremlin has a history of being particularly secretive about any major military mishaps, especially those that could have a radiological component. Russia has been equally reluctant to share information about a fire that occured on the nuclear-power spy submarine Losharik on July 1, 2019. Reports had also emerged later that a sunken Soviet-era nuclear submarine was leaking much more radiation than previously understood, though Russian and Norweigan researchers insisted that the depth of the wreck and its general location mean this presents a more limited risk to surrounding areas.

It may take decades to get a clearer picture of what happened, if that happens at all.

Update: 6:30 PM EST—

U.S. President Donald Trump appears to have confirmed that the U.S. Intelligence Community has at least strong suspicions that a Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, or a prototype thereof, was involved in the accident last week. Trump Tweeted about the incident late on Aug. 12, 2019, describing it using the NATO nickname for the weapon, "Skyfall." Previous reports have identified this moniker, but no U.S. or other NATO officials have used it publicly before, suggesting that the social media post followed a formal briefing on the topic.

Trump also said that the United States possessed "similar, though more advanced, technology," though it is not clear whether or not he was referring to an active nuclear-powered missile program or the Cold War-era U.S. experiments with the concept.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com