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

Trump all up in the tubes

This White House proposal to regulate social media moderation could be one of the bloated, mangy shitgibbon’s mock-charges (via MIT Technology Review):

The news: A draft executive order would give the FCC oversight over how social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter moderate their sites, according to CNN, which obtained a copy. Dubbed “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship,” the order calls for the FCC to develop new rules to define when the law protects tech firms’ decisions to take down content—and when it doesn’t. It also demands that the Federal Trade Commission take those new rules into account when investigating potential malpractice by companies.

The politics: This represents a major escalation in the Trump administration’s campaign against social- media firms, which he claims are biased against conservatives (despite a lack of evidence), and would be a vast expansion of the FCC’s responsibilities.

There’s a sound argument that Big Tech needs regulation to prevent bad things, such as social media being weaponized to subvert democracy or platforms chewing up user data to become marketing panopticons. But that’s not what this is about.

The proposed oversight is theater in response to made-up conservative grievances, like Trump-supporting clowns Diamond & Silk’s claim that Facebook was shadow-censoring them, which a Congressional hearing revealed was based on the sister-grifter duo’s ignorance about how user settings work. And Trump’s own periodic squealing about Twitter interfering with his follower count, which happened to coincide with Twitter’s occasional purges of bot accounts.

Anyhoo, let’s hope this is much ado about nothing. The last thing we need is that moron all up in the tubes. Speaking of moronic, Trump staged a taxpayer-funded MAGA rally in Pittsburgh a while ago and said an appallingly stupid thing about wind power:

“Some day the environmentalists are going to tell us what’s going on with that. And then all of the sudden it stops — the wind and the televisions go off.”

Jesus take the wheel.

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.


Tuesday Morning Open Thread: High Summer

(Jeff Danziger via GoComics.com)

Because a commentor asked: Any (other) Jackals attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin this weekend?

It was in August that Richard Nixon helicoptered out of the Oval Office, one step ahead of the law…

And some genuinely good news…

Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

As someone who’s read a lot of NTSB reports, my God this is a damning indictment [pdf] of the Navy’s oversight of the Arleigh Burke class destroyers:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the collision between the destroyer John S McCain and the tanker Alnic MC was a lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer by the US Navy, which resulted in insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures. Contributing to the accident were the John S McCain bridge team’s loss of situation awareness and failure to follow loss of steering emergency procedures, which included the requirement to inform nearby traffic of their perceived loss of steering. Also contributing to the accident was the operation of the steering system in backup manual mode, which allowed for an unintentional, unilateral transfer of steering control.

The NTSB is really good at not scapegoating humans unless those humans circumvented established procedures. What I take from this synopsis is that the sailors on the bridge of the McCain were undertrained and using touchscreen computer systems that were overly complicated. Here’s some more proof:

Following the incident, the Navy conducted fleet-wide surveys, and according to Rear Admiral Bill Galinis, the Program Executive Officer for Ships, personnel indicated that they would prefer mechanical controls. Speaking before a recent Navy symposium, he described the controls as falling under the “‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category,” and that ship systems were simply too complicated. He also noted that they’re looking into the design of other ships to see if they can bring some system commonalities between different ship classes.

The Navy is going to refit the Arleigh Burke class with physical controls.

Why should you care? Obviously few (if any of you) run a ship. But all of us are buying new cars that put an ever-increasing amount of functionality into touch screens. It’s so much cheaper to have one big touch screen where the behavior of the controls can be updated via a software fix. But we’re humans, and we are much more effective when we have simple mechanical controls.