In the last few days, an official report involving a rather serious accident earlier this August was revealed by Russian nuclear agency, Rosatom. According to its details, the nuclear engine of a particular experimental cruise missile exploded, which caused the deaths of several technicians, as well as, creating a nuclear hazard around the area.
Nyonoksa “Ground Zero”
On August 8, 2019, on a test barge located somewhere in the White Sea in Nyonoksa, Arkhangelsk Oblast (around the extreme Northwestern area of Russia), a cruise missile test had gone awry after its nuclear engine unexpectedly exploded.
The cruise missile in question was a 9M730 Burevestnik, known to NATO as the SSC-X-9 “Skyfall.” It is designed as a super-long range ballistic missile built to fly for very long periods around the world, sometimes even during the course of days or weeks. This was achieved using a nuclear engine, which uses air passing directly through the engine to maintain lift.
It is important to make the distinction that this is NOT a nuclear missile. In other words, its payload is not a nuclear warhead. Instead, the cruise missile is powered by nuclear energy. By design, it can be configured to carry different types of ordinances, depending on the mission structure and its deployment procedures. However, it CAN carry nuclear warheads, but its design is essentially a long-range ballistic missile that replaces rockets or jet engines with a nuclear engine.
The incident, while significantly less in scale than something like a nuclear reactor meltdown, was still a serious nuclear accident that cost the lives of people involved. Nevertheless, the incident remained unreported for at least three or more days, until Rosatom finally acknowledged the incident on August 11, 2019.
Sadly, the official report remained discreet about the description of the nuclear engine installed on the cruise missile. Rosatom instead officially referred to it as “an isotopic power source for liquid engine installation.” The report then goes on to specify that there were at least five employees killed during the accident, all of which have apparently been subsequently posthumously awarded with unspecified honors.
Health Hazard and Censorship Concerns
On August 14, 2019, the entire rural community of Nyonoksa was ordered to evacuate the area. Fishing and all other coastal activities were also prohibited during this time. Though during the next day, the evacuation was canceled. The villagers were allowed to stay at their homes.
The incident became dubbed as “small-scale Chernobyl disaster,” harking back to the national emergency of similar nature, but significantly larger in scale in 1986. This is exacerbated by the implication that Rosatom was deliberately pushing the definition of a “nuclear engine” away from the exploded cruise missile.
Outside Russia, there were several concerns as to how the radiation would drift towards European airspace. However, at the moment, there are still no such reports.
Also, based on current meteorological data around the supposed affected area, there might not be any significant updates on this end for the next several days. At the very least, if any radiation hazard over Europe relates to the incident, we would likely be able to sample the radiation to determine which isotopes were involved in the accident (or which things got caught in the explosion).
Despite the level of risk and danger posed by this accident, publicly announced details are very scant, at least at the moment. This is very much understandably so, as this is the Russian government. It might presumably have its hands full at the moment due to damage control and lessening the hysteria of the incident so as not to cause an international uproar.
Despite this, however, there were several posts and news feeds that show images or information related to the scale of the incident. Other institutions and organizations around the world have also independently detected the occurrence of the explosion, in a way technically confirming the unfortunate events that transpired last August 8.
One such observation was from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). They detected what was assessed to be an explosion, triangulated within around the same area in Russia using its globally deployed sound and radiation sensors.
Aside from these separate reports, there is substantially strong circumstantial evidence that the exploded cruise missile was not just the same type but is exactly the same one that was launched off Novaya Zemla on November 2017.
During that year, the first and only flight test of the Burevestnik missile ended in a technical failure, after being unable to sustain its flight time for the last two minutes that it was supposed to keep its heading and trajectory. The missile, despite announced efforts to search for it in 2018, was not found. Or at the very least, the Russian government never announced any updates on its search.
Even more peculiar, is that the nuclear fuel carrier Serebyanka was also spotted within the same area in Nyonoksa during August 8th. This strongly implied that there were salvage and retrieval operations for something nuclear that was ongoing nearby. This then provided hints that it was, in fact, the exploded nuclear-powered cruise missile.
Once Again, Into the Disappearing Tracks
As of now, there are no new major details leaked about this “little Chernobyl” incident. Being that this is an accident of an extremely sensitive nature both politically and militarily within Russian borders, it is almost certain that we would probably never hear about any of its details again for the next several years.
Hopefully, however, with adequate international pressure over the next following weeks, we might just be able to get at least an accurate grasp of the enormity and scope of what actually happened.