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

He Can’t Help Himself – Open Thread

Yesterday, Donald Trump tweeted about the Russian explosion at Nenoksa.

A number of experts hastened to criticize on the grounds that the United States doesn’t have a program like Russia’s Burevestnik [NATO designation Skyfall], or, if we do, it must be highly classified.

But there’s something else worth noting. This may be the first time Trump has criticized Russia in any way.

And of course, it’s a dick-measuring contest. He can’t help himself.


Speculations On The Nenoksa Explosion

On the morning of Thursday, August 8, something exploded at the Nenoksa Naval Base in Russia, not far from the city of Severodvinsk. This article is a good summary of what we knew by Friday. Since then, the Russian government has said that a radioactive source was involved in the explosion, along with liquid rocket fuel. Reports have gone back and forth on whether radiation detectors in Severodvinsk detected anything. Five more people have been reported dead. Sarov/VNIIEF, one of the Russian nuclear weapons laboratories, has released a statement, which some folks are rushing to translate.

Read more

PSA – Mushroom Clouds Are Not Necessarily Nuclear

There have been two notable explosions in Russia this past week.

  1. An arms storage depot exploded at Achinsk, near Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. Every summer, a couple of arms storage depots explode in Russia. They have a lot of them, and their safety measures leave something to be desired. Explosions have continued for a week. Once they start, it’s dangerous to fight the fire that started them and continues. Better to evacuate the area (which has been done) and let the burning and exploding continue until there’s nothing left. Two people or more were killed and a dozen or so injured.

This event has produced some impressive video. Because of the relative humidity, you can see the shock wave as water in the air condenses and evaporates rapidly. Mushroom-shaped clouds have resulted. Large enough explosions, whether conventional or nuclear, produce mushroom clouds. Mushroom clouds are not a marker for a nuclear explosion.

  1. Something blew up at Nenoksa, near the Severodvinsk Naval Base in far northwestern Russia. Reports are fragmentary and somewhat contradictory. Five people were killed and several injured. Suspicions that the Russian government is withholding information are exacerbated by the recent showing of Chernobyl. When the Chernobyl reactor blew up, the Soviet government covered it up until they couldn’t. Which is not to say that the Russian government is or is not covering up now. So far, the confusion looks to me like the normal confusion associated with a disaster, compounded by a secret project and a desire not to admit it’s going badly.

The Russian government has now admitted that a radioactive source was associated with the Severodvinsk blast. Put that together with the Achinsk mushroom cloud and…mnh-hmnh, the crazies are running with it, which is why I am writing this post. There have been conflicting reports about radiation detected in the city of Severodvinsk. At most, it seems to have been a transient pulse of a relatively small amount of whatever it was. No abnormal radiation has been detected in Europe. We should hear more about that in the coming week.

Here’s a map. The pin is at the Severodvinsk Naval Base. Look toward the right, almost past Kazakhstan, and there’s Krasnoyarsk.



Here’s the video of the very impressive explosion at Achinsk. There’s another one of a later explosion there that also shows the shockwave well and a mushroomish cloud.

I have some thoughts about what may have happened in the Nenoksa explosion. I’ll write another post on that.



Update: A friend who spends time in Krasnoyarsk pointed out to me that I had the map wrong. I corrected it.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner

What Did I Miss?

I went to Albuquerque for shopping today and lunch with a friend. Just before I left, the news of an explosion at Nenoksa, in northeast Russia near the city of Severodvinsk, was hitting Twitter. I come home this afternoon to the news that Sue Gordon, Deputy Director of National Intelligence, has tendered her resignation and will be leaving the DNI’s office along with Dan Coats on August 15.

The Nenoksa explosion – There’s not much news, and it’s early news, the kind that often turns out to be wrong. The official announcement is that two are dead and several injured.

Here’s a thread from Jeffrey Lewis that is probably the best summary around. I’ll just give you the top two tweets. He’s been tweeting additional material through the day.

The Severodvinsk city government reported that their radiation detector had a sudden pulse. I haven’t seen a number in the news, but a friend had some numbers, and they were very small. The fact that it was a pulse and not continuing means it was even smaller than that. Note that the Tass article that Lewis quotes says that radiation levels in Severodvinsk are normal. My best guess is that it was a blip in the detector. Other guesses from knowledgeable people were a broken “EXIT” sign’s tritium or a smoke detector. Nonetheless, the New York Times saw fit to lead with radiation.


Reporting on radiation, and public ignorance of radiation, is getting worse and worse. Radiation is the ultimate terror, and it’s coming to get YOU!

A bunch of us are speculating about what it is that blew up. It may have something to do with Russia’s planned nuclear-powered cruise missile, although I think that is mainly vaporware.


Sue Gordon Resigns – This was pretty much expected, although reasonable people hoped it wouldn’t happen. The usual noises were emitted from the upper reaches of the Trump administration indicating displeasure with having to appoint her Acting Director of National Intelligence, which is the usual prelude to moving a person out of a job. Yes, the law said that she should become Acting, but that was why she had to be made to resign. Gordon’s career has been in intelligence, and knowledgeable people think well of her. Daily Beast article here.

Joseph Maguire, the current director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will be the Acting Director of National Intelligence. Presumably he has done the proper obeisance to Trump and will give interviews on Fox News to seal his position from acting. Although for some positions, an Acting Director can’t become Director. Tune in for next week’s drama.

Trump is removing competent people and replacing them with toadies. This is one reason that I think that Nancy Pelosi’s long game is a mistake. Every one of these jobs that gains a toady or goes unfilled adds to Trump’s power. The intelligence community has not supported his Foxified view of the world. We can look back to the report, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US,” George W. Bush’s daily briefing for August 6, 2001, to see the kind of damage missing or ignored intelligence can do.

Open thread!