A Mysterious Explosion Took Place in Russia. What Really Happened?

August 12, 2019
Jeffrey Lewis

The following is an excerpt of an article published in Foreign Policy. The links at the bottom to other reports of this story featuring CNS experts are updated continually.

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 good reason to believe so.

The first thing we did was 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 the 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 as week after week 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.

Continue reading at Foreign Policy.

More CNS analysis on the Russian nuclear explosion incident:

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