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What Happened At The Severodvinsk Naval Testing Range? Thoughts On The Severodvinsk Radioactive Release And When It Happened Here – Analysis

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By John R. Haines*

(FPRI) — What happened on 8 August at Russia’s Severodvinsk Naval Testing Range? That question has preoccupied Western media reports for several days running. This New York Times report is typical:

“United States intelligence officials have said they suspect the blast involved a prototype of what NATO calls the SSC-X-9 Skyfall. That is a cruise missile that Mr. Putin has boasted can reach any corner of the earth because it is partially powered by a small nuclear reactor, eliminating the usual distance limitations of conventionally fueled missiles. As envisioned by Mr. Putin, who played animated video of the missile at a state-of-the-union speech in 2018, the Skyfall is part of a new class of weapons designed to evade American missile defenses.“[2]

The area in question is an overwater airspace that contains a number of test ranges, which the Russian Navy uses for test and evaluation activities and training exercises. The Severodvinsk Naval Testing Range is located near the restricted town of Severodvinsk on the White Sea, close to the village of Nyonoksa (sometimes translated as Nekosa) and near the district capital, Arkhangelsk (aka Archangel). The then-new testing range—at the time, the “State Central Naval Range” (Gosudarstvennyy tsentral’nyy morskoy poligon)—in September 1955 was the site of the world’s first ballistic missile launch from a submarine (albeit a surfaced one).[3] Severodvinsk has been an important Russian naval hub since the 1950s, a testament to the strategic importance of the Kola Peninsula’s year-round ice-free harbors, something recognized by imperial naval planners in the second half of the nineteenth century.[4]

Something clearly happened at the Severodvinsk Naval Testing Range (henceforth, “Severodvinsk” for convenience’s sake). The question is what.

Severodvinsk (red dot) Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency
Severodvinsk (red dot) Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency

The Russian Ministry of Defense on 8 August initially attributed the incident to the explosion of a liquid-fuel rocket engine,[5] an implausible explanation given the improbability that radioactive elements would be present in a liquid-fueled engine. Reports later that day by Regnum and other Russian media outlets immediately cast doubt on the Defense Ministry’s claim.[6] Many quoted Rosgidromet[7] online reports that ASKRO[8] had detected gamma radiation levels around Arkhangelsk four to sixteen times above normal background levels. Revised official reports attributed the incident to a nuclear-powered cruise missile called the 9M730 Burevestnik [NATO reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall], the existence of which was lauded by President Putin in a March 2018 speech.[9] Official statements identified the incident’s location as “an offshore platform in the White Sea, about 40 km from Severodvinsk” and revised the explanation to “fuel ignited by a liquid propulsion system during the testing of the new Burevestnik intercontinental cruise missile.”[10]

Vedomosti[11]Kommersant[12] and other Russian media then began citing reports by The New York Times and other Western media outlets that identified a Burevestnik missile prototype as the likely protagonist. That narrative found ready acceptance, primed by expert commentary before the incident about the possibility of a fissure occurring in flight that would cause the missile’s reactor to lose isolation.[13] It was also known from open sources that Rosatom, the Russian government’s nuclear agency, deployed aircraft during earlier Burevestnik test flights to monitor radiation emissions (in this instance, from engine exhaust), perhaps one reason why Novaya Gazeta columnist Yuliya Latynina called the Burevestnik “a flock of flying Chernobyls”[14] (staya letayushchikh Chernobyley).

There is nothing especially new about the Burevestnik concept. Rosatom describes its engine as “an isotopic power source for a liquid engine installation,” which as Novaya Gazeta points out, makes it a nuclear scramjet much like the United States’ Super Sonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM) program of the early 1960s.[15] However, while the SLAM relied on air passing directly through the nuclear core of the engine, the Burevestnik reportedly uses a liquid metal to cool the reactor and to transfer the heat to air passing through the scramjet.[16] The Burevestnik would represent a significant technological advancement if Russian engineers succeeded in developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile small enough, as Mr. Putin said, to fit on the equivalent of U.S. Tomahawk, given that the SLAM was over 28 meters long, while a Tomahawk is 5.56 meters long (6.25 meters with its booster).[17]

Why would Russia stake its prestige on a weapon system that the United States abandoned in the early 1960s? One reason might be a nuclear-powered cruise missile’s asymmetric deterrence impact, which given unlimited range, could alleviate “some of the difficulties associated with this medium/long range challenge, helping the Russians navigate around pockets of NATO aerospace and sea control to strike at assets supporting NATO and U.S. force projection,”[18] writes Ryan Kuhns, a Program Analyst with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Defense Programs.

The Severodvinsk incident might have been a Burevestnik prototype test gone wrong. While from an engineering perspective, it is certainly possible with a nuclear thermal reactor based on a solid uranium core, a liquid radioisotope core, or even gaseous uranium to use thermal energy generated from radioactive decay to heat liquid hydrogen fuel, such technologies are unproven with regard to missiles.

On the other hand, the limited facts that exist in the public domain support an alternate, more plausible thesis: if a radioisotopic power system was involved and a liquid-fuel engine exploded, the Severodvinsk incident might well have been a Russia space program test gone wrong, possibly involving a small, uranium-235 based fission reactor. The Severodvinsk venue makes sense: the Russian Navy was involved in the country’s space program in the 1990s and 2000s. There is ample technical precedent as well. In April 1965, the United States successfully flight tested a flight-qualified fission reactor, the SNAP (Space Nuclear Auxiliary Power) 10A. The SNAP 10A converted heat from radioactive decay directly into electricity by means of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). The radioactive isotope strontium-90, for example, has been used in both American and Russian RTGs.

If true, it could be suggested the Russian government used a false Burevestnik accident narrative to support a larger, perhaps equally fictitious one regarding Russian missile prowess and the penetrability of Western anti-missile defense. The Office of the Secretary of Defense’s 2019 Missile Defense Review[19] noted that “Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the coercive and potential military uses of nuclear weapons, particularly including nuclear-armed, offensive missiles”:

Russian leaders also claim that Russia possesses a new class of missile, the hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), which maneuver and typically travel at velocities greater than Mach 5 in or just above the atmosphere. . . . Russian leaders also claim that Russia possesses a new class of missile, the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), that enables Russian strategic missiles to penetrate missile defense systems. HGVs challenge missile defense capabilities because they are maneuvering vehicles that typically travel at velocities greater than Mach 5 and spend most of their flight at much lower altitudes than a ballistic missile. [20]

A Burevestnik prototype was reportedly field tested in January 2019, shortly after that document’s release. Two months later, Mr. Putin justified its development in terms of growing Russian concerns about U.S. missile defense capabilities.[21]

A second, and far more remote possibility, is that the Severodvinsk incident was related to the development of an advanced, subatomic analog of the nuclear fusion reaction that occurs in the core of hydrogen bombs. This speculation is based mostly on inference, given that there has been no known demonstration of the theoretical proof that it is possible to fuse subatomic particles together in ways that release energy. It is known from Rosotom reports that one of the casualties in the Severodvinsk incident, Alexey Vushin, worked on technical equipment for Large Hydron Collider-related experiments to study elementary particles.

Mr. Putin has indisputably mastered what a 2016 RAND study called “the contemporary Russian model for propaganda as ‘the firehose of falsehood.’”[22] “New Russian propaganda entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience”[23] by exploiting “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.”[24] These may be Soviet-era objectives, but they are prosecuted with distinctly un-Soviet methods, as Gregory Simons, a scholar of Russian soft power and crisis management communications at Sweden’s Uppsala University, noted:

The current system of trying to control the flow of information in the mass media during the time of a crisis employs what could be considered in some circumstances to be relatively ‘Soviet’ objectives. However, it is clear that the means of bringing about these objectives are far removed from the old and outdated Soviet means of information management, with much more sophisticated means, borrowed from the West being employed.[25]

While it is true that much contemporary Russian dezinformatsiya can be misconstrued as intending to establish falsehoods as true whereas more often, it targets the concepts of truth and objective political fact themselves, that is not always so. The Severodvinsk incident may be one of those exceptions in which the Russian government sought to establish falsehoods as true to support a broader narrative about Russian offensive missile capabilities.

The Russian government may have opted for a digital containment[26] approach to managing the Severodvinsk incident. It would be noteworthy if so because it means the Russian government adapted techniques meant to contain Russian dezinformatsiya, in effect, using them to contain the putative contain-er (the West) instead of the intended contain-ee(Russia). Russian information strategists recognize and routinely exploit asymmetrically a fundamental weakness in the Western media digital sphere, which is its need for a plausible narrative that holds up under widespread, intense repetition while it slowly evolves. Perhaps most interesting in this instance is how the Russian government appears to have approached plausible deniability, usually a prime dezinformatsiya imperative. Scholars Corneliu Bjola and James Pamment explained the place of plausible deniability—and its use to mask the sources of disinformation—in the context of containing Russian digital disinformation:

Denying plausible deniability to digital disinformation advocates is a critical step for the success of the digital containment strategy. As long as disinformation can be disseminated with impunity, the promoted message retains a certain degree of credibility, especially when it is associated with a local account.[27]

Here, however, the element of deniability is absent while the dezinformatsiya objective appears to be this: to establish—and once established, to reinforce—the element of plausibility. In columnist Clarence Page’s coinage, it is a question of “a deniable plausibility,” something that begs “a more fundamental question,” viz., “Why did this hot story have to become public at all?”[28] The radiological contamination factor alone explains why the Severodvinsk incident had to become public. While without further details it says nothing probative per se about the incident’s cause, it does unbind a set of plausible explanations, among which the nuclear-powered Burevestnik is perhaps preferred because it casts Russian technological prowess in the most positive light.

Whatever caused the Severodvinsk incident, it is not the first time such an incident happened. Case in point, on 7 June 1960, a fire erupted inside Shelter 204 at the Boeing Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (BOMARC) facility on New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base (technically, on the Army’s Ft. Dix bordering McGuire, on ground leased by the Air Force). The fire destroyed a Boeing CIM-10 BOMARC missile, burning and melting its nuclear warhead, destroying the missile, and badly damaging the launcher shelter. Warhead residue contaminated Shelter 204’s asphalt apron and concrete floor, which the Air Force later sealed with a fixative paint and a six-inch layer of concrete over the most heavily contaminated areas. The fire destroyed portions of the shelter roof, allowing plutonium that had adhered to dust and smoke particles to be carried aloft and dispersed. Firefighters sprayed the shelter for approximately 15 hours, allowing plutonium-contaminated water to flow into a drainage ditch leading from Shelter 204. An earthen dam was reportedly constructed across the ditch to contain the contaminated water, which eventually dispersed, after which the Air Force placed an asphalt cover over the drainage ditch. The remains of the warhead and residue from the Shelter 204 floor were bagged and placed into sealed cans for disposal, with the high-grade nuclear material shipped to Medina Air Force Base and then to the Department of Energy’s Pantex facility in Amarillo, Texas. While the exact amount of plutonium contained in the warhead remains classified, the Air Force later stated that approximately 300 grams of weapons-grade plutonium went unaccounted from the Shelter 204 fire.

BOMARC was a supersonic long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) designed to destroy attacking aircraft and airborne missiles. Used for North America air defenses, the CIM-10 BOMARC was the first operational long-range SAM, and the only one ever deployed by the United States Air Force. The McGuire facility was the first operational BOMARC site when it was established in 1959, of an eventual thirteen in North America (including two in Canada), and it remained online until 1972. In July 1985, New Jersey Governor Tom Kean said his administration learned that radioactive material was still contaminating a ”sizable” part of the now-decommissioned BOMARC site. In November 1992, the Air Force agreed to remove contaminated soil, building debris, concrete, and asphalt from the site and ship it to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission-licensed facility in Utah. This work was finally completed in May 2004, and the following year, an additional 5 acres were declared contaminated and remediated in 2007. An estimated $22.1 million was spent on remediation. 

Time declared in 1986 that “The U.S. is the only country in the world where ‘covert’ funding for ‘secret’ wars are front-page news.”[29] If true then, it is no longer so. Claimed Russian advanced weapon systems, whether or not they exist, serve to establish and reinforce a fundamental Russian narrative, one that serves a potent if less commonly heard dezinformatsiyaobjective. The Severodvinsk incident may be an intriguing example of that, and possibly a revival of a five decade-old idea about nuclear-powered cruise missiles. It also revived a mostly forgotten illustration of the danger inherent in all missiles, which warheads aside, are sensitive and temperamental instruments. When that danger manifested in New Jersey in 1960, it took the United States government four decades to acknowledge and clean it up.


The translation of all source material is by the author unless noted otherwise.

*About the author: John R. Haines is the co-chair of the Eurasia Program, Executive Director of the Princeton Committee, and a member of the Board of Trustees at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

[1] The opening quote is attributed to John D. Rockefeller in Peter Collier & David Horowitz (1975). The Rockefellers: an American dynasty. (New York: Holt, Rindhart and Winston) 59.

[2] “U.S. Officials Suspect New Nuclear Missile in Explosion That Killed 7 Russians.” The New York Times (12 August 2019). https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/12/world/europe/russia-nuclear-accident-putin.html. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[3] In September 1955, the Soviets Union launched the first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the R-11FM [NATO reporting name: SS-1b Scud]. It is a naval variant of the Soviet R-11 Zemlya ballistic tactical missile. The development of the R-11FM occurred in three phases, the last of which culminated in the first successful submarine (surface) launch of a SLBM on 16 September 1955, from the V-611 [NATO reporting name: Zulu V] class submarine B-67 in the White Sea. Seven of the eight tests between 16 September and 13 October 1955 were successful. The R-11FM’s short, 150 kilometer range made its launch platform vulnerable to antisubmarine defense systems, and it soon was replaced by the R-13, another nuclear-capable, surface-launched SLBM with a range of 600 kilometers.

[4] John K. Skogan (1986), Sovjetunionens Nordflåte 1968-85. (Oslo: NUPI).

[5] “Minoborony ukazalo prichinu vzryva na poligone v Nonokse.” (“Ministry of Defense explains the cause of the Nekosa training ground explosion”). Regnum [published online in Russian 8 August 2019]. https://regnum.ru/news/accidents/2684885.html. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[6] “V Severodvinske zafiksirovali povysheniye urovnya radiatsii.” (“Increased radiation levels recorded in Severodvinsk”). Regnum [published online in Russian 8 August 2019]. https://regnum.ru/news/2685091.html. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[7] Rosgidromet is the acronym of Federal’naya sluzhba po gidrometeorologii i monitoringu okruzhayushchey sredy (English: Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring).

[8] ASKRO is operated by the Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters. It is the acronym of avtomatizirovannaya sistema kontrolya radiatsionnoy obstanovki, or “automated radiation situation monitoring system.”

[9] In his annual address to the Federal Assembly on 01 March 2018, Mr. Putin disclosed, “[T]he 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.” TASS report that as Mr. Putin spoke, “On a large screen he showed a video modelling the flight of a nuclear power plant-equipped cruise missile circumventing missile defenses. In the video a cruise missile was flying at a low altitude over rugged terrain and water surface.” See: “Putin declares creation of unstoppable nuclear-powered missile.” TASS [published online 1 March 2018]. https://tass.com/defense/992226. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[10] See, for example: “Burevestnik» otpravyat na dorabotku.” Expert [published online in Russian 14 August 2019]. https://expert.ru/2019/08/14/burevestnik/. Last accessed 2019.

[11] “NYT svyazala vzryv pod Arkhangel’skom s ispytaniyem rakety «Burevestnik».” Vedomosti [published online in Russian 12 August 2019]. https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2019/08/12/808632-raketi. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[12] “Vzryv v Nonokse ukrepil veru SSHA v «Burevestnik».” Kommersant [published online in Russian 13 August 2019]. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4060305. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[13] See, for example: Valentin Vasilescu (2018). “MiG-31 : porteur du missile de croisière à propulsion nucléaire Burevestnik?” Réseau Voltaire [published online in French 4 October 2018]. https://www.voltairenet.org/article203314.html. Last accessed 17 August 2019. Stresses on the order of hundreds of pounds per square inch occur at various support points, which can rise to thousands of psi. In addition, the temperature drop required to transfer heat from the fuel to the air stream causes additional stresses on the order of several thousand psi as a consequence of the temperature differences. See: University of California Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (1959). The Nuclear Ramjet Propulsion System (30 June 1959). https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/4217328. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[14] Yuliya Latynina (2019). “Malen’kiy letayushchiy Chernobyl’.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 12 August 2019]. https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/08/10/81561-malenkiy-letayuschiy-chernobyl. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[15] The United States initiated Project Pluto in early 1957 at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and later moved to Jackass Flats. In May 1961, the world’s first nuclear ramjet engine, Tory-IIA, successfully ran for a few seconds. As envisioned, the SLAM vehicle would have almost unlimited range and would cruise in circles over the ocean until ordered down drop its multiple nuclear weapons on multiple targets. When it finally lost power to fly and crash landed, the engine would have a good chance of spewing deadly radiation for months to come. Amidst concerns that it would provoke the Soviet Union to develop a similar weapon for which there was no known defense, Project Pluto was canceled on 1 July 1964. See: https://crgis.ndc.nasa.gov/historic/Test_198:_Pluto/SLAM_(LASV). Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[16] Sean Gallager (2019). “Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile blows up, creating ‘mini-Chernobyl’.“ Ars Technica[published online 12 August 2019]. https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2019/08/russian-nuclear-powered-cruise-missile-blows-up-creating-mini-chernobyl/. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[17] Ryan Kuhns (2018). “The Nuclear-powered Cruise Missile: Insights into Russian Strategic Logic.” Next Generation Nuclear Network [published online 15 June 2018]. https://nuclearnetwork.csis.org/nuclear-powered-cruise-missile-insights-russian-strategic-logic/. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Office of the Secretary of Defense (2019). 2019 Missile Review. https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jan/17/2002080666/-1/-1/1/2019-MISSILE-DEFENSE-REVIEW.PDF. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[20] Ibid., IV, 12

[21] “Russia Conducts Test of Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile.” The Diplomat [published online 6 February 2019]. https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/russia-conducts-test-of-nuclear-powered-cruise-missile/. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[22] Christopher Paul & Miriam Matthews (2016). The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation). https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html.

[23] Giorgio Bertolin (2015). “Conceptualizing Russian Information Operations: Info-War and Infiltration in the Context of Hybrid Warfare,” IO Sphere (Summer 2015) 10. Quoted in Paul & Matthews, op cit.

[24] Paul & Matthews, op cit.

[25] Gregory Simons (2005). “Russian crisis management communications and media management under Putin.”

Arbetsrapporter Working Papers No. 85 (January 2005) 24. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6b2a/5d28f2065a3822422fb31ec02f9b708a784b.pdf. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[26] The author acknowledges the work of Corneliu Bjola and James Pamment. See: Bjola & Pamment (2016). “Digital containment: Revisiting containment strategy in the digital age.” Global Affairs. 2:2, 131-142. Reprint available at: https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:dc51ad77-3ae0-4ff3-ae93-d1a7a12197e6/download_file?file_format=pdf&safe_filename=digital%2Bcontainment%2Brevised%2Bclean.pdf&type_of_work=Journal+article. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[27] Ibid., 11.

[28] Clarence Page (2012). “Keeping a lid on the Petraeus affair.” Chicago Tribune (14 November 2012). https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2012-11-14-ct-oped-1114-page-20121114-story.html. Last accessed 17 August 2019.

[29] Time (8 December 1986). Cited by Ladislav Bittman (2008). “The use of disinformation by democracies.” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 4:2 (1990) 243.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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