By Shannon Bugos
U.S. intelligence analysts have bolstered earlier assessments that an Aug. 8 explosion near a Russian missile test site involved a nuclear-powered cruise missile undergoing development and testing. (See ACT, September 2019.)
The incident began with a blast at the Nenoksa Missile Test Site, on the coast of the White Sea. According to a statement from Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) two days later, five employees died in the accident, which involved “isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit.” Two military personnel also reportedly died from the blast.
A subsequent U.S. intelligence assessment determined that the blast was caused by a recovery mission to salvage a nuclear-powered cruise missile from the ocean floor from a previous test, CNBC reported on Aug. 29.
“There was an explosion on one of the vessels involved in the recovery, and that caused a reaction in the missile’s nuclear core, which lead to the radiation leak,” a person with direct knowledge of the intelligence assessment told CNBC. A number of media outlets have reported releases of a variety of radioactive isotopes.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Norwegian Norsar Research Institute suggested that there may have been two explosions at the test site. Anne Lycke, the institute’s chief executive, said that seismographic readings suggested an explosion first on the ground or water, and then an infrasonic air-pressure sensor pointed to a second explosion two hours later, likely in the air. The second one “coincided in time with the reported increase in radiation,” she said. The governor of the region in which the blast took place denied the possibility of a second explosion.
Some U.S. nuclear experts and intelligence officials initially assessed that the accident likely involved a failed test of a nuclear-powered cruise missile known as the 9M730 Buresvestnik by Russia and the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov appeared to confirm this assessment Aug. 21, stating that a “nuclear-propelled missile” was being tested at the time of the accident.
No official explanations have come from Russia. President Vladimir Putin said only that “this is work in the military field, work on promising weapons systems.”
CNBC released another report on Sept. 11 citing an intelligence finding that, despite numerous test failures, the 9M730 would be ready for deployment in 2025, about five years earlier than previously assessed.