An explosion at a missile test center has rekindled anxieties about Moscow’s penchant for secrecy when bad or embarrassing things happen in its national security establishment. Details have been slowly and reluctantly revealed, yet even that drip of information has been enough to heighten concern about what transpired and Russia’s intentions. If the accident occurred during the test of a new nuclear propulsion system, then the government of President Vladimir Putin should be condemned for its recklessness and the threat these new weapon systems pose.
A year ago, Putin announced that his government was developing new weapons that use nuclear engines to hit distant targets and evade defense systems. Among those weapons is a cruise missile that the Russians call the 9M730 Burevestnik or Storm Petrel and which NATO has dubbed the SSC-X-9 Skyfall; another is a giant nuclear-powered torpedo called the Poseidon. Their nuclear engines give them virtually unlimited range and allow them to outmaneuver defenses or to go undetected.
While the technology is being developed by Russia, it is not new. The United States experimented with nuclear propulsion systems in the 1960s but decided not to deploy them, concluding that such missiles made no sense. They would destroy everything in their flight path because their engines were so loud and hot. Moreover, there was a risk associated with shooting nuclear reactors across Earth (regardless of the warhead in its nose).
That logic has not deterred Russia. It has been experimenting with small nuclear reactors for its missiles and one of them exploded during tests earlier this month. First, the Russian Defense Ministry merely said that a rocket engine had exploded, killing two people and injuring six others. It denied that radiation had been released, although the city government in Severodvinsk, about 35 km from the test site, reported a brief rise in radiation levels, but they returned to normal within an hour. That triggered a run on iodine — which prevents the body from absorbing radiation — in the city. Residents were advised to close their windows, but local health officials insisted there was no danger.
Two days later, Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear agency, acknowledged that the explosion involved a “nuclear isotope power source,” and that five nuclear engineers have been killed. The village closest to the test site was ordered evacuated and then that order was canceled. Part of Dvina Bay, where the test site is located, was closed — not unusual during tests — for a month, apparently to prevent observations of the accident site. In addition, the Serebryanka, a nuclear fuel cargo ship, has been at the test site, likely to help retrieve radioactive debris from the bay.
Even if the Russian government is being truthful and the explosion poses little risk to residents or neighboring countries, the piecemeal and begrudging release of information about the accident inspires little confidence. It is reminiscent of the darkest days of the Soviet era, when a nuclear reactor could melt down, triggering the worst nuclear crisis in human history, and Moscow would insist that nothing was happening.
Russia’s commitment to developing this new class of weapons is equally troubling. The risks attendant to shooting nuclear reactors around the world are staggering — as this explosion shows. It may sound ironic to worry about a nuclear reactor exploding when it is propelling a nuclear warhead, but the very point of a weapon of this type is to be able to direct (or recall) it, not indiscriminately litter its flight path with radiation.
Putin’s character, as well as the mounting need for popular support, demands an assertive and muscular foreign policy and explains much of the drive behind these new weapons. They help him rally the country as the Trump administration withdraws from arms control treaties and embarks on its own nuclear modernization program. Paradoxically, attention to the new weapons is likely also a call to Washington to recognize the dangers of an unbridled arms race and to return to negotiations to limit future deployments and weapons systems.
Japan, as a U.S. ally, risks being sucked into this competition. Moscow views Tokyo’s attempts to support the U.S. as hostile and has warned that Japan will suffer the consequences of those decisions. Tokyo must also worry about the environmental effects of accidents in Russia’s national security establishment. Nuclear plumes can travel to our territory and Russian military assets have a poor history of safety: Last month, a Russian nuclear submarine caught fire while underway in the Barents Sea. Old Russian nuclear submarines on the Pacific coast have periodically experienced “negative buoyancy,” spilling radioactivity into the environment.
Japan must be alert to these incidents, demanding transparency from Moscow when evidence arises, and demanding that Russia, along with the U.S., do more to head off the dangers of a new nuclear arms race.