A nuclear explosion rocked an offshore platform in the White Sea on August 8, killing five nuclear scientists and two Defense Ministry employees. The following weekend, the Kremlin only provided small details and contradictory information, an approach which added to the suspicion surrounding the incident. Finally, on August 12, Vyacheslav Solovyov, scientific director of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center revealed that these scientists were working on “small-sized energy sources using radioactive fissile materials” at the Nyonoksa military range (Smith). Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear agency, later divulged that the nuclear system included “isotope power sources within a liquid propulsion system” (Smith).
What Caused the Explosion?
The accident occurred in “Nyonoksa, where Soviet and Russian military planners have conducted missile tests for decades” (Krutov et. al). Western analysts initially thought the explosion was caused by a failed test of Russia’s Skyfall missile, which was unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 and supposedly has unlimited range. However, the government did not notify Nyonska residents before the explosion, even though it has done this in the past. This points to the conclusion that the Kremlin did not plan a test of the weapon.
As more information surfaced, experts found that accident likely occurred during an offshore missile recovery mission. The day after the explosion, in the online Russian fisherman chat room sanatatur.ru, at least two users posted messages referring to an operation the day before to recover a warhead lost in the sea the year prior in Nyonoska. One user said the explosion tore a hole in the hull of a ship. Another user, who was 4 kilometers from the site of the explosion on August 8, saw “a 100-meter column of water that burst into the air” (Krutov et. al).
After the accident, photos of the platforms washed ashore appeared on VKontakte. Military officials warned residents “not to approach anything that washed ashore” (Krutov et. al). Satellite images showed Rosatom ship the Serebryanka entering the site and returning to port on August 9. In the past, Rosatom has used the ship to transport nuclear waste. On August 13, “a special purpose rescue and recovery ship known as the Zvyozdochka” appeared in photos (Krutov et. al). The ship was equipped with two powerful cranes and two submersibles primarily used for deep-sea salvage and recovery.
On August 26, Rosgridromet, Russia’s weather service, announced that the explosion released “isotopes associated with a nuclear reaction,” meaning that Russian engineers might have accidentally “set off a small, potentially disastrous fissile reaction” (Krutov). An individual “with direct knowledge of the U.S. intelligence assessment” of the accident reported to CNBC that this explosion indeed occurred during a salvage mission. Another anonymous individual said that “an explosion on one of the vessels involved in the recovery and that caused a reaction in the missile’s nuclear core which lead to the radiation leak” (Macias). What likely happened was that the reactor rod, which would have “kept the nuclear reaction under control,” slipped out of the sunken missile’s core, which led to the massive August 8 explosion, according to Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists (Lyman, Krutov et. al).
Just a month before in July, 14 Russian sailors died after a fire broke out on a submarine. Several media outlets, citing military sources, said that the submarine was nuclear, though the Kremlin declined to comment. Radiation levels after the accident were normal, according to an official from Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Norway (Kramer).
The Kremlin has attempted to cover up several nuclear accidents since the end of the Soviet Union. In 2000, the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 Russian sailors onboard. Newly-elected Putin refused offers of assistance from other countries and “the Kremlin misled and manipulated the public” (Ayres). In September 2017, “European scientists detected an increased concentration of radioactive ruthenium-106 over Europe” and traced it back to the Ural Mountains. This led to speculation that an accident occurred at the Mayak facility, “the site of the worst nuclear accident before Chernobyl” (Ayres). The Kremlin insisted that Mayak was not involved, but a scientific study later debunked this claim and confirmed that the radiation’s source was the Mayak facility (Masson et. al).
What about Skyfall?
Citing information from a U.S. intelligence assessment, CNBC reported on September 11 that Skyfall will be ready by 2025, a slightly accelerated timeline than U.S. officials previously believed (Macias 2). However, Russia has yet to conduct a successful test of Skyfall. It conducted four tests of the missile between November 2017 and February 2018, but each resulted in a crash. In early 2019, Russia conducted at least 13 tests of the missile, 1 of which was “moderately successful” (GlobalSecurity).
The missile is called “Burevestnik” in Russia, which is a type of sea bird. Theoretically it draws enough power for unlimited range from a small nuclear reactor it carries “to heat the air in its jet engine” and theoretically would be able to evade interceptors (Smith). In the initial speculation following the August 8 explosion, many experts panicked that the explosion was caused by another test of Skyfall due to its design. “Think of it like a mini Chernobyl on a missile,” said Vipin Narang, an MIT politics professor who focuses on nuclear weapons (Smith).
The United States developed similar technology in the 1960s, but deemed the project too dangerous and abandoned it. In fact, the United States did not even risk testing the project over Nevada or the Pacific because it had “the potential to spread radioactive particles over the ground” while flying and was too likely to fly off course. Essentially, “[y]ou’ve got air blowing through an open nuclear reactor and spewing out the back” according to Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Any test of this technology is a major safety concern because it is so volatile.
Conclusion: Politics Played a Role
The explosion occurred less than a week after the United States withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty over its complaint that Russia repeatedly violated the treaty. The Kremlin’s reckless retrieval of dangerous nuclear technology is a symptom of this breakdown in relations. In its attempt to defend itself against the United States and its NATO allies, Russia is putting safety second to boosting its arsenal.
Domestically, Putin is under pressure to develop militarily. Russia’s economy is struggling in part due to tough Western sanctions. Putin’s approval ratings have also dropped to historic lows. Taking this and the upcoming 2024 elections into account, Putin is under pressure to perform and bolstering Russia’s military strength could improve his ratings (PBS Newshour). His administration will continue developing nuclear weapons to keep up with the United States, and this could lead to more disastrous results.
Ayres, Sabra. 2019. “After a deadly nuclear missile test in Russia’s north, the Kremlin stuck to an old Soviet habit: Secrecy.” August 13. LA Times. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-08-13/russia-nuclear-missile-explosion-soviet-secrecy.
GlobalSecurity.org. “KRND Burevestnik [Petrel] SSC-X-9 SKYFALL.” https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/krnd.htm.
Kramer, Andrew E. 2019. “Russian Deep-Sea Military Vessel Catches Fire, Killing 14.” July 2. The New York Times.
Krutov, Mark, Sergei Dobrynin, and Mike Eckel. 2019. “Did A Botched Bid To Recover A Sunken Missile Cause The Russian Radiation Blast?” August 30. RFE/RL. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-radiation-explosion-sunken-missile-investigation-nyonoksa/30138178.html.
Lyman, Edwin (@NucSafetyUCS). 2019. “If this report is accurate…” August 29. Twitter.
Macias, Amanda. 2019. “US intel report says mysterious Russian explosion was triggered by recovery mission of nuclear-powered missile, not a test.” August 30. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/29/intel-says-russian-explosion-was-not-from-nuclear-powered-missile-test.html.
Macias, Amanda. 2019. “Russian nuclear missile with ‘unlimited’ range to be ready by 2025, US intelligence says.” September 11. CNBC.
Masson et. al. 2019. “Airborne concentrations and chemical considerations of radioactive ruthenium from an undeclared major nuclear release in 2017.” August 20. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16750.
PBS Newshour. 2019. “What we know about deadly radiation explosion at Russian military site.” August 13. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/what-we-know-about-deadly-radiation-explosion-at-russian-military-site.
Smith, Alexander. 2019. “Failed Russian nuclear test hints at Putin’s dangerous plans to beat U.S. defenses.” August 13. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russian-failed-nuclear-test-hints-putin-s-dangerous-plans-beat-n1041721.