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.
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
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.”