Update On The Nyonoksa Explosion

First: We have no more information than when I wrote about the Nyonoksa* accident on Monday. If anything, we may have less because the Russian government has gone back and forth in its announcements, contradicting earlier announcements and sometimes coming back to what was said earlier. So everything they say must be questioned. Because the test that caused the explosion appears to be a military secret, it is unlikely that the Russian government will say anything informative unless something happens to make it necessary for them to speak. The funerals of the scientists killed took place quickly.

What could make it necessary for them to speak is the open source intelligence analysis community’s ability to see and decipher evidence relating to the explosion. The New York Times is even getting in on the act. We can expect to see reports of recovery vessels in the area of the explosion, trying to recover the remnants from the seabed.

Additionally, social media is offering up confusion and perhaps disinformation. There is far too much speculation by uninformed folk. No photos of the incident are available that I am aware of. The armory explosion at Achinsk, near Krasnoyarsk, almost on the other side of Russia, has been conflated with the Nyonoksa incident. I have seen major news outlets putting photos of explosions at Achinsk in proximity to Nyonoksa stories.

Another source of confusion is the Chernobyl video series a month or two back. A few people have been referring to the idea of a reactor on a cruise missile as a “Mini-Chernobyl.” There is no way that a reactor that small could be more than a drop in the sea relative to the Chernobyl accident. This is unnecessarily alarming. Please don’t do it. The confused information coming from the Russian government is similar to the withholding of information by the Soviet government during the Chernobyl accident, though.

A correction on my earlier post: I looked at a patent from the 1970s and thought it was for a small reactor that would supply heat for propulsion via a heat exchanger. I was wrong about the patent – it is for a flow-through reactor like the Tory and Rover reactors. My argument about weight tradeoffs for flow-through reactors and compact reactors with heat exchangers stands, however.

The KiloPower reactor has been mentioned by Russia and perhaps Donald Trump as a possible equivalent to whatever produced the Nyonoksa explosion. As it is being developed now, KiloPower is for electrical generation in planetary exploration. It’s been argued that perhaps reactors of this sort could be developed for propulsion. That would make them bigger, of course, and a heat exchanger would likely be necessary. There’s no indication that this sort of development is going on, but secret programs are secret.

The best evidence we have of what happened is summarized by Jeffrey Lewis, whose group at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies continues their investigation. A question that can be raised, however, is whether the test they cite at Novaya Zemlya was of the Burevestnik. There is no contradictory evidence, but the evidence remains thin.

The evidence is also somewhat consistent with an isotopic power source, which both Michael Kofman and Pavel Luzin argue for. Luzin also makes some of the arguments I do against a flowthrough reactor, although I would attribute the difficulty to engineering realities rather than the laws of physics. But isotopic power sources have not been able to generate the power necessary for propulsion, and if they are for something else in this test, it’s hard to see why the test would have been over water.

In the next few days, we may see analyses of airborne isotopes from European measuring stations. That may give us a little more information. One report of radioactive iodine has shown up from Norway. I am waiting for more reports of more isotopes. Radioactive iodine frequently shows up in atmospheric sampling. It is produced by civilian nuclear reactors and used in medicine. It is a short-lived fission product, so if this result is supported and connected to Nyonoska, it argues for a reactor rather than an isotopic power source.

Vladimir Putin introduced Burevestnik and other innovative weapon concepts a year ago. His purpose was to show the United States that Russia is not to be messed with. Now that John Bolton is in a position to realize his ambition of eliminating all arms control treaties, an arms race could begin. But why? The United States and Russia have enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other several times over, including ICBMs that miss their targets or blow up on their launches and the very few that will be taken out by missile defense. What more do they need?

Historian Alex Wellerstein looks at that foolishness. Lewis asked in his article whether the lives of five young scientists are worth that arms race.

Margaret Sullivan makes a case for “slow news” in the case of Jeffrey Epstein. That case applies to the Nyonoksa explosion as well. We have very little information. Let’s wait to draw conclusions until we’ve got more.


Some links


Jeffrey Lewis on Twitter (just came out before I posted)

Vox: What caused Russia’s radioactive explosion last week? Possibly a nuclear-powered missile. (quotes me)

Daily Beast: Spies, Lies, and Radioactivity: Russia’s Nuke Missile Mishap, Decoded

Popular Mechanics: Why the U.S. Abandoned Nuclear-Powered Missiles More Than 50 Years Ago

Of historical interest

1990 article by Gregg Herken on Project Pluto

Video of a NERVA rocket engine in action (h/t Dan Yurman)



* Nyonoksa is probably a better phonetic transliteration from Russian than Nenoksa. In another point of terminology, I find the NATO designation “Skyfall” unnecessarily theatrical and will stick with “Burevestnik.”


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

36 replies
  1. 1
    zhena gogolia says:

    What’s wrong with “Stormy Petrel”?

  2. 2

    Nobody has suggested that. I kind of like it, but I think it doesn’t have enough pizazz for our military.

    Cue Carol Cohn.

  3. 3
    Ken says:

    Slow and careful? No! Arctic Ocean a radioactive pit! Clickbait!

    We’ve had this talk this before.

  4. 4
    Sam says:

    I suppose the other question is what would the Russians be doing if it was not Burevestnik. There is a lot of nuclear infrastructure in that area to support the Russian navy, but it seems unlikely they were testing anything larger and more “conventional” on the barge. Whatever they were doing it seemed to require fat least five scientists. That points to something experimental. So personally I’d like to know whether there are signs that rocket propellant was involved in the fire. If so, probably a weapon. If not, then maybe an exotic weapon but could also be a non-weapon reactor or perhaps a plutonium rtg, the plutonium can get very hot. Hard to see why you would test those on a barge, but conceivable if designed for naval use

  5. 5
    hells littlest angel says:

    The explosion was just a convenient way to dispose of the bodies of the assassination team that killed Jeffrey Epstein (first sending the killers back in time was particularly clever).

  6. 6

    @Sam: Putin said reactor. Others have said liquid propellant. Others have said isotopic source. Take yer pick.

  7. 7
    Martin says:

    I still think this was a test of the Russian TEM upper stage. They’ve been working on that for a little while now. It’s supposedly based on the old soviet RD-410.

    I don’t think the US has done any nuclear rocket development since the late 80s.

  8. 8
    Bill Arnold says:

    Thanks, lots of links are helpful. Just saw a reference to this in another venue. (There are a few other pages with similar text)
    google translate is interesting suggesting a isotopic power source
    Russia calls on the international community to prevent an arms race in space, and Trump Advisor accuses Russia of stealing technology to create hypersonic weapons (08/15/2019)

    Field tests of a reactive installation with isotopic sources were carried out for the first time on August 8, Izvestia sources say. The purpose of the new development was not disclosed.
    “Batteries” were used instead of traditional batteries. According to experts, they will greatly simplify maintenance and reduce the cost of the use of liquid rocket engines. In them, the fuel and the oxidizing agent are separately from each other and are forcibly supplied to the combustion chamber. There they mix, initiation occurs – microexplosion and combustion begins with the release of a large amount of heat. This design is more complicated than solid-fuel engines.

  9. 9
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    One would think “The USAF, in the 60s, though this was dumb idea” would warning enough.

  10. 10

    @Bill Arnold: Thanks, interesting. I’m seeing this in other places too. It seems like a lot less than what Putin was selling last year. There are all sorts of possible reasons for that – he misunderstood what the engineers were telling him, the engineers oversold, they were selling a nuclear rocket and then found out it wouldn’t work…

    Or it could be something else entirely.

  11. 11
    Bill Arnold says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:
    If true, it also means Michael Kofman has gained some bragging rights. (I liked his piece.)

  12. 12
    Keith P. says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques: It wouldn’t be surprise me if Russia was or even is developing some Davy Crockett knockoff.

  13. 13
    Ken says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques: Especially if one has read John D. Clark’s Ignition. Although admittedly most of the experiments he describes – featuring red fuming nitric acid, neat hydrogen peroxide, and chlorine trifluoride – were in the 1950s and 1960s.

  14. 14
    Bill Arnold says:

    I do wonder how many of the single-sourced stories (even the official-sounding ones) and speculation are Russian disinformation/misinformation. An analysis of this (eventually) might be illuminating.

  15. 15
    Patricia Kayden says:

    @hells littlest angel: Hillary is so clever!!

  16. 16

    Thanks as always for doing these posts, Cheryl. Super informative!

  17. 17
    Mike in DC says:

    Well, all this makes me feel perfectly comfortable regarding the safety of the 30 drone torpedoes with 100 megaton cobalt-salted warheads that Russia intends to deploy. I’m sure nothing can possibly go wrong there.

  18. 18

    @Mike in DC: I think those drone torpedoes are in the same category with the Burevestnik: Never gonna work.

  19. 19
    Van Buren says:

    “wait to draw conclusions” That’s not how the internet works!

  20. 20
    Baud says:

    Update On The Nyonoksa Explosion

    First: We have no more information than when I wrote about the Nyonoksa* accident on Monday.

    I would have found it funny if the post ended here.

  21. 21
    Mike in DC says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: In that case I hope they’re never deployed. A genocidal weapons system is an atrocity merely by existing.

  22. 22
    Martin says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Well, the cruise missile idea seems largely incompatible with how nuclear rockets actually work. But a drone torpedo is basically just a nuclear submarine with all of the meat bits removed. Now, it faces a very different set of problems – how do you control it and make sure it doesn’t blow up some Maersk vessel? But that’s not insurmountable either. Requires more attention than I think Russia could give it, but it’s not that difficult of a problem.

    Why I think it’s not a great idea is that even a scaled down nuclear sub will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and you’re proposing to make that disposable. It’s a feasible idea, but a dumb idea. I think the nuclear cruise missile is both infeasible and dumb.

  23. 23
    TenguPhule says:

    Inspector general finds politically motivated harassment at State Department

    This is my surprised face.

    : |

  24. 24
    Fair Economist says:

    Isotopic sources? I can’t see how that would be useful for a missile or anything else that would be near something explosive in the research phase.

    A flow through reactor would probably have the “spewing radioactives” disadvantage of Pluto, right?

    Last, if the scientists are getting blown up something is wrong with their research system. Safety precautions are being ignored, or somebody powerful is delusional about risks. Definitely like Chernobyl that way, even if the risks are far smaller.

  25. 25
    Mike in DC says:

    @Martin: What you’re missing is that these are supposed to have 100 MEGATON warheads, “salted” with cobalt-60 to cause maximum lethal fallout over a vast area. The intention is to launch them against a major populated coastal city and detonate very close by, causing both a tidal wave and massive radioactive fallout. These aren’t “strategic” weapons, they are straight up terror weapons, mini-doomsday devices. In theory one or two of these could contaminate the entire East or West Coast.

  26. 26

    @Mike in DC:
    The whole thing about “drone torpedoes” never made much sense to me. If you want to put a 100MT warhead on the thing, you’re going to wind up with a very big weapon. The warhead itself would probably be in the 20 ton range, and a propulsion system needed to give it worldwide range would be quite a bit bigger than that. You’re talking about something the size of of a small submarine, not what most people would think about as a torpedo.

    And then there’s the whole question of how it would be used. Submarines have to move slowly if they’re going to remain stealthy, and stealth is going to be critical if you don’t want your drone sub blown up on approach. So you’re talking about a weapon that’s going to take weeks to get from Russia to its target. How are you going to use that? One method would be to have the drone sub loiter near its target until it gets a signal, but that has problems. Communicating with submerged subs is notoriously difficult, and the longer it loiters the more chance it has of being either A) suffering a crippling failure or B) being detected by the enemy. That leaves the more likely use as a first strike weapon, but it would only be useful for an attack planned well in advance because of the long transit time.

  27. 27
    NotMax says:

    A part of me is inclined to surmise that as nasty as the explosion may have been, the entire program has been intended as a bargaining chip to be given up in future treaty negotiations (i.e., just get it to the point of minimum demonstrable functionality), so perhaps was not vigorously conducted under the most rigorous oversight and cautionary measures as a program intended for long term stockpiling and deployment might otherwise be.

  28. 28
    Mary G says:

    @Mike in DC: Well, that’s depressing as hell, so here’s a thread of dogs, some modeling sunglasses:

    This is definitely the best trend on TikTok (a thread) 🐶 pic.twitter.com/IuqsIrWZet— Alexis Benveniste (@apbenven) August 15, 2019

  29. 29
    Procopius says:

    @Mike in DC: @Mike in DC:

    se aren’t “strategic” weapons, they are straight up terror weapons, mini-doomsday devices.

    The same is true of any nuclear weapon, even the new “small” devices that have Bolton slavering to use. Of course, Bolton and his many minions think of these as just “big bombs,” but they are going to have 50-100 kiloton power. IIRC Hiroshima and Nagasaki were about 25 kilotons. Also, if one is used, the opponent is incentivized to fire all of theirs immediately, because you have just demonstrated you are crazy and your actions are unpredictable. Remember, these people thought it would be a great idea to drop one (or more) on North Korea’s missile testing grounds to “send a message.” As Donald Trump said, “What’s the use of having them if you can’t use them?”

  30. 30
    Jay says:

    @Fair Economist:

    Isotopic sources would suggest that a small reactor was being used to superheat heat a liquid to provide thrust.


    While such engines would be feasable and even efficient in space, 50 years of chasing the dragon, still leaves them millions of miles behind chemical fuel rocket engines in all categories on earth.

    Keep in mind, the US MIC is still chasing Ronnie Raygun’s Star Wars.

  31. 31
    Repatriated says:

    @Roger Moore: Doesn’t eliminate our counter-strike capability, and since they’ve announced it there’s no deniability. Unless they’ve lost confidence in their ICBM force (or think we think they have), there’s no point.

    Unless they think our leadership doesn’t understand Mutual Assured Destruction…

    oh dear.

  32. 32

    @Fair Economist:

    A flow through reactor would probably have the “spewing radioactives” disadvantage of Pluto, right?

    LOL, yes

    if the scientists are getting blown up something is wrong with their research system.

    Again, yes. But, having been in high-pressure, high-visibility programs, I can see how this happens. When you’re doing proof of principle, the system is not optimized for anyone to operate it. That comes later. Only the people who built the system may know how to operate it, and it may be very subjective judgments about instrument readings and control settings. So you need to be close to it.

    And I’m sure this is high pressure. Putin announced it last year with a nice animated video. He undoubtedly would like to see something like that video and has probably made that desire known to the scientists.

  33. 33


    the entire program has been intended as a bargaining chip to be given up in future treaty negotiations

    Entirely possible

  34. 34
    Bill Arnold says:

    From the google translate for the Russian article I linked,

    New isotopic power sources – “atomic batteries” – facilitate the maintenance, use and storage of liquid-propellant engines by an order of magnitude, said Dmitry Kornev, editor-in-chief of the Militaryrussia Internet project.
    “For such propulsion systems, it is very important to maintain thermostability when a constant temperature of the fuel, oxidizer and all systems is maintained,” the expert noted. – Therefore, these products require a very complex infrastructure. They are stored in special rooms and kept constantly connected to energy sources. They are transported in specially equipped vehicles. But thanks to the “atomic battery” such problems will no longer arise. An isotopic source emits enough heat and electricity to maintain thermostatic mode.

    Which, if true, seems pretty boring. At least interesting, they’re maintaining liquid fuel temperatures (liquid oxygen and hydrogen?) during both cold Siberian nights and hot days. That way they could use high-specific-impulse liquid gas fuel. Perhaps they’re (also?) using an iosotope-based heater to preheat the fuel for an energy efficiency boost, which would be a little more interesting. (trottling difficult)

  35. 35
    Bill Arnold says:

    @Bill Arnold:
    Throttling difficult sorry. Unless one can control the rate of radioactive decay, radioactive isotope based heat sources produce heat at a reasonably constant rate (decaying over time). (Obscure sci-fi tropes include slowing down/speeding up elapsed time relative to an external observer of the device, or just directly tinkering with the probability of radioactive decay (there are other ways to say this). I think we can safely assume that Russians can’t do either reliably enough for weapons usage. Vodka being one issue. Also, it would be a very big deal for other reasons. :-)

  36. 36
    Mike in DC says:

    @Procopius: A precision guided ICBM or SLBM warhead, with a yield in the low megaton/high kiloton range, is intended to destroy a hardened target such as an ICBM silo. In that regard it has deterrent value and also is within a certain “normalized” range for great power nuclear weaponry as a “counterforce” weapon. A 100 megaton device, augmented with cobalt-60 to create a “dirty nuke” that will destroy a massive area and contaminate tens or hundreds of thousands of square miles of inhabited civilian areas with deadly fallout lasting up to 5 years, has no counterforce value and is massive overkill as a counterpopulation weapon. Ergo, a pure terror weapon. It’s not intended as a counterbalancing weapon, but as an imbalancing one. Such a device is roughly 5000 x as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, but with an even greater radioactive byproduct than that suggests. You could utterly depopulate a medium-sized country with a device like this.


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