After a significant nuclear explosion last Thursday in Russia — possibly the worst the Kremlin has seen since Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine — Moscow is keeping mum about further details. The explosion claimed at least seven lives, including a number of elite Russian scientists.
The explosion came amidst what Russia’s state nuclear agency said were tests related to a nuclear-powered engine on an offshore platform in the Russian Arctic.
However, numerous questions still remain regarding the explosion, including what precisely Russia was testing and how widespread the damage from the fallout may be.
The leading theories pertaining to the botched test center on Russia’s nuclear-powered “Burevestnik” (SSC-X-9) cruise missile, which Moscow has previously tested. The “Burevestnik” missile program involves what the Kremlin has pitched as an innovative form of nuclear propulsion, providing what President Vladimir Putin has pledged as an “unlimited” range for the nation’s nuclear-strike capabilities.
First, Russia appears to have recently moved SSC-X-9 testing to Nenoksa. In the past year, Russia built a launch area that closely resembles the one removed from Novaya Zemlya with a shelter on rails. (Also, blue shipping containers!) pic.twitter.com/yMCDVFt51t
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) August 10, 2019
“It looks like they’re going awfully fast to an integrated test, and when you do that, blowing things up is not totally surprising,” said Cheryl Rofer, a retired scientist from the Los Alamos National Lab who has written about the incident. Speaking to ThinkProgress, Rofer added that political pressure may have played a role in the incident. “It looks like it was too rapidly [developed] for reasons other than scientific,” she said.
Rofer said there remain a number of things she and others will be looking for following the incident, including potential overhead photos as well as whether other European countries detect any radiation from the explosion.
While details about the explosion remain unclear, the repercussions may already be unfolding.
Five atomic scientists were killed in the blast, all of whom were working on the test in Russia’s White Sea. According to Alexei Likhachev, who heads Rosatom, Russia’s state-run nuclear agency, the men “tragically died while testing a new special device.” A separate Rosatom official said, according to Bloomberg, that they were part of a team dedicated to research on power sources using “radioactive materials, including fissile and radioisotope materials.”
Following the explosion, radiation meters in the nearby town of Severodvinsk promptly spiked. “Russian news media later reported radiation briefly rose to 200 times normal background levels,” The New York Times reported.
The explosion is the latest blow to Russia’s recent push in broader defense innovation. Last month, a nuclear-powered submarine caught fire, killing 14 sailors, including a number of “elite” officials.
The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian “Skyfall” explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2019
On Monday night, President Donald Trump tweeted about the explosion, noting that people were ‘worried’ about the explosion.