The Russian 9M730 Burevestnik Accident: What We Know and Further Speculation

Watercolor illustration of a Russian nuclear research complex by the author.

As my posts here are admittedly few and far between these days, my most-recent was about the HBO drama Chernobyl, a fictionalized account of the real disaster at the Ukrainian Chernobyl nuclear power station in the 1980s. Now, I am compelled to write about a recent, real, incident the contemporary Russian Federation seems to have had with their military weapons systems. The 9M730 Burevestnik  (NATO code name: SSX-C-9 Skyfall) is a nuclear-powered cruise missile system capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a set of new weapons being developed back in March of 2018 and this supposedly "unstoppable" cruise missile with nearly-unlimited range was one of those weapons. NATO and Western militaries were to a degree skeptical about Putin's claims, probably based on a combination of the type of hyperbole Putin is given to in speeches such as this one on the State of the Nation and intelligence which their agencies gathered on the specifics of the development of the weapons. 

Putin stated in the speech, speaking of the 9M730 system:

“One of them is creation of a small-size highly powerful nuclear power plant that can be planted inside the hull of a cruise missile identical to our air-launched X-101 or the United States’ Tomahawk, but at the same time is capable of guaranteeing a flight range that is dozens of times greater, which is practically unlimited."*

Then, last Friday, 9 August, a spike increase in ambient radiation was detected near the port city of Severodvinsk, which is a base for nuclear submarines of the Russian Northern Fleet. The Nenoksa Missile Test Site is about twenty miles away and seemed the source of the radiation, not anything in the port itself (though the presence of the sensors taking these readings and vigilance of the local authorities certainly is related to the subs which call this port home, and probably the proximity of the missile test facility as well). While there appears to have been some immediate alarm in Severodvinsk, the Ministry of Defense soon claimed things were just fine and the local authorities' notices of warning came down from its websites. As I write professionally mostly about Russia, I was on VKontakte, which is basically like the Russian Facebook, and saw some chatter regarding the curious announcement of a spike in radiation by the Severodvinsk authorities. Later, the official announcement was there was a missile test underway and sadly, an explosion took place, killing five scientists and injuring others. It appears the accident took place on a ship, which was launching the missile. This in and of itself is not that surprising, as the United States long has tested rockets and missiles at its Eastern Test Range off Florida's coast in the Atlantic and at other locations—naval missile systems logically are tested at sea. The associated spike in ambient radiation however was concerning to an extent. 

Of course, a great deal of speculation followed. The mainstream press was mostly concerned with the fact that Russia had some sort of supposedly "nuclear" accident whereas the trade and professional media were more interested in some intriguing specifics. For one, the five people who perished in the explosion were identified varyingly as "nuclear engineers", "scientists", or "highly-technical personnel" and never as military officers or enlisted troops. Later, they were uniformly named as "nuclear scientists", and praised as some of the best in the nation. They worked for Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation which broadly performs for the research and development of nuclear weapons systems the same duties as the US Department of Energy and its contractors do here. To Russia-watchers familiar with how these things work, this would indicate the missile in question was no where near as far along in its development as Mr. Putin wanted the world to believe, for it was still under the auspices of Rosatom and undergoing possibly its first real sea trials. Indeed, it may have been an early but fully-flyable prototype, not an alpha or beta entry into the arsenal of what the weapon will eventually become. This returns the nuclear cruise missile program in Russia to basically where intelligence analysts had placed it prior to Putin's March 2018 speech touting these weapons. 

The release of radiation was recorded at 0.002 mSv during the two-hour period of an increase in ambient radiation and this was not only reported by the aforementioned local sensors but also by sensors Greenpeace operates in the Arctic and even Greenpeace acknowledged the release of radiation was not at levels dangerous to humans; indeed, the spike was far less than an average full-body medical CT scan emits. There has been some concern however regarding whatever debris the exploding device may have yielded and if increases in radiation in the immediate area where the explosion took place may have been higher than twenty miles away where the sensors provided readings.

What is clear though is that this is not another Chernobyl by any stretch of the imagination. Chernobyl was a dire situation with far-reaching and long-lasting effects, and it also was an accident which transpired because of very foolish human error—something the HBO mini-series portrays quite accurately, if at times also for grand dramatic effect. It is not an accident which could happen now, in Russia of today or anywhere else. In contrast, the incident with this missile system while very tragic, cannot be totally unexpected. During the heyday of American aeronautical testing towards supersonic bombers and the space program, there were a number of accidents resulting in the loss of test pilots and others involved in such research. It is a dangerous busine. The fact the device in Russia was nuclear-powered seems to have no bearing on the deaths in this accident: you have a missile or rocket explode and it won't matter what the fuel or propulsion system is, the explosion alone could be fatal. 

Thankfully, the Western news media has not been horribly alarmist, though some reporters and outlets have not wasted in time in speculation and even some reputable networks have made glaring errors in their reporting—ABC News in example called it the "9M370" missile instead of the correct "9M730" missile. That could be a simple typo, sure, but also could indicate a lack of real fact-checking when these stories go online. The fact that Greenpeace, who often decry anything nuclear and nearly anything military, stuck to the science this time around and confirmed that the release of radiation seemed to be well within safe limits may have helped matters and could indicate what benefits there are for pro-nuclear advocacy in general when all parties stick to the science, stick to the facts, in their reporting and commentary.

As to the future of the 9M730 system, it seems they have a good ways to go. It is disturbing to think a weapons system is having problems with propulsion which could end in explosion, but not very surprising, and the explosion most certainly would have been caused by non-nuclear ignition/booster systems and not the nuclear primary engine and definitely not the warhead. Russia's worst accidents in their space program—and they have a track record sadly far worse than the United States' in this regard—have all been the doing of faulty fuel/propulsion systems on rockets and this incident almost certainly to Russian engineers brought back those historical memories more than it would have Chernobyl, and rightfully so.

*English translation of Putin's State of the Nation speech from The Diplomat journal online at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/russia-reveals-unstoppable-nuclear-powered-cruise-missile/