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Last Updated : Aug 16, 2019 04:01 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Was Russia experimenting with a nuclear-powered cruise missile? Here's what we know so far

Five scientists employed by Rosatom, the state-owned atomic energy corporation of Russia, died last week in what was reportedly a blast at a military site in northern Russia

Representative image
Representative image

The details of what exactly happened in the Russian Far North, where, in the span of one week, five nuclear scientists were killed, and, according to reports, one town was told to evacuate and then stay, are still sketchy.

There are, however, crumbs of information emerging, and according to experts, the entire episode might have a nuclear dimension to it.

What exactly happened?


Five scientists employed by Rosatom, the state-owned atomic energy corporation of Russia, died last week in what was reportedly a blast at a military site in northern Russia.

The official version quoted by various publications states that the scientists were killed during tests on a liquid propulsion system involving isotopes. In other words, the scientists were in the process of testing a nuclear-powered engine, but no further details were forthcoming, according to reports.

According to a BBC report, the test was being carried out on an offshore platform in the Arctic region at a naval test range.

Rosatom has said the engineers had completed testing, but they were thrown into the sea after a fire broke out, causing explosion in the engine.

After the explosion, officials observed a 40-minute radiation spike in Severodvinsk, a city that is about 40 kilometres east of the test range.

However, the BBC report states that while the spike was significant— reaching two microsieverts per hour and then falling to 0.11 microsieverts, considered normal—the levels were too small to cause radiation sickness.

An official state of mourning was declared for the five scientists, and they were reportedly buried in Sarov, a closed town with restricted access. Reports suggest that Sarov is where nuclear warheads are made.

The evacuation that wasn't 

On the bak of these events, Russia on August 13 ordered the evacuation of a village called Nyonoksa, near the spot of the accident. The village has about 450 residents, and, according to a report by Washington Post, they were all told to board a train that would take them away.

According to the state-run TASS news agency, the evacuation was ordered because the military wanted to conduct some exercises in the region.

However, the evacuation was later called off. Valery Mashenkov, the head of the administrative department for the village, told TASS that the evacuation was called off after the military cancelled its scheduled drills.

Officials have since maintained that the planned evacuation was only a "routine measure".

Nuclear missile test?

Although the Russian government has not divulged technical details of the test, the secret nature of the entire incident has raised red flags for many experts.

Russia has previously tested a nuclear-powered cruise missile called Burevestnik, which is officially called by the NATO as SSC-X-9 Skyfall. Experts have stated that the test was most likely linked to the missile.

"We are skeptical of the claim that what was being tested was a liquid propellant jet engine," Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, told CNN.

This has raised concerns that a dangerous material might have been released following the disastrous test, but nothing has been officially confirmed yet. However, the Russian government has imposed an exclusion zone in Dvina Bay in White Sea for at least a month, according to reports.

According to the BBC report, the explosion could have also involved a different kind of weapon, including a new long-range, anti-ship cruise missile called Zircon, which the report states is hypersonic; or even a long-range underwater drone.

Meanwhile, United States President Donald Trump, reacting to the incident, said the US is "learning much" from it.

"The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian ‘Skyfall’ explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!" Trump tweeted.
First Published on Aug 16, 2019 04:01 pm