Russia’s catastrophic test of a nuclear-powered missile proves that a new global arms race will mean new nuclear accidents.
RUSSIAN FEDERATION: Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) and Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov (L) watch the launch of a missile during military exercises in the Barents Sea aboard of “Pyotr Veliky” nuclear missile cruiser 17 August 2005. A Russian nuclear submarine fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (IBM) as part of major exercises in the Barents Sea,(Photo credit should read ALEXEY PANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
On Thursday, Aug. 8, Russian authorities issued a surprising announcement. Some sort of accident had occurred during a test of a missile engine near the city of Severodvinsk, along Russia’s Arctic coast. Two people died, and there had been a brief spike in radiation detected. Soon after, images and videos appeared on social media of first responders in hazmat suits, ambulances, and a helicopter for an emergency airlift.
The reference to radiation was striking—tests of missile engines don’t involve radiation. Well, with one exception: Last year, Russia announced it had tested a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor. It calls this missile the 9M730 Burevestnik. NATO calls it the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
A nuclear-powered cruise missile is an outrageous idea, one the United States long ago considered and rejected as a technical, strategic, and environmental nightmare. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, though, thinks differently. My colleagues and I at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies—who regularly use open-source tools to monitor the state of nuclear proliferation around the world—wondered if something had gone wrong with the Skyfall. We soon discovered there was a good reason to believe so.
The first thing we did was an attempt to locate where the incident had occurred. Many of the reports pointed to a missile test site at a place called Nenoksa, about 18 miles up the coast from Severodvinsk. Our assumption was that the accident had occurred at the Nenoksa Missile Test Center. The facility is no secret: It is well documented in declassified intelligence reports and even marked on open-source platforms such as Wikimapia. The test center has been there since the 1960s—and, from satellite images, looks every year of its age.
But when we looked more closely at the site, we were surprised to find something new. To tell you what we saw, I have to tell you a little more about Skyfall.
When Russia announced that it had begun testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile, Putin played a short video that appeared to show the missile in flight. At the time, we were able to use the video of the launch to geolocate the test site to the remote Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya. That was no mean feat—there is not much satellite coverage that far north, half the year there is almost no light to take pictures, and much of the time it’s shrouded in clouds anyway. We once tasked a satellite to take an image of a nearby site that had been used for nuclear testing and waited week after week as the satellite passed overhead, taking picture after picture of white fluffy clouds that only Bob Ross could love.
By 2018, though, we had images and were able to find the launch site and support areas. The launch site itself was very distinct—it consisted of an environmental shelter where scientists could prepare the missile prior to its launch. The shelter was mounted on rails so it could be pulled back when the team was ready to test the missile. And for some reason, all the equipment showed up in blue shipping containers.
Once we found the site, we continued to monitor it. We wanted to see if we could detect preparations for the next test of Skyfall before it was launched. And one day, in the summer of 2018, Russia inexplicably began packing things up. There had been reports in the press that the U.S. intelligence community believed that the tests during the previous fall had all failed, with the longest one lasting a mere 22 seconds. My colleague Anne Pellegrino and I explained to NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel that we weren’t sure why Russia was abandoning the site but that it was possible Russia was going back to the drawing board with its doomsday cruise missile.
Now, here we were, staring at Nenoksa—and there it was. That very same shelter, sitting on rails and surrounded by the same blue shipping containers. Russia had constructed this new test site for Skyfall around the same time as it was packing up the old test site on Novaya Zemlya. They had just moved the test site south. The image was sitting in Google Earth. We just hadn’t noticed.
Suddenly the fact that the engine test accident had involved radiation did not seem at all strange.
August 13 2019 by Kevin Blanch
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