As I first wrote about this last weekend, the nuclear accident occurring offshore in northern Russia’s Nenoska test site last Thursday continues to raise troubling questions for Western analysts. The death toll has risen to seven from the weekend report of five, according to a new New York Times report today. The offshore accident was followed by what local officials reported to be a spike in radioactivity in the area.
The official Russian explanation continues to involve “small scale sources of energy with the use of fissile materials. But, those explanations ring hollow to many American officials:
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.
The accident would be the largest nuclear accident in Russia since Chernobyl, but all agree it would – in a worst case scenario – still be several magnitudes of severity lower than the Chernobyl incident .
The Russians purportedly developed the “Sky Fall” missiles in an attempt to evade North America’s nuclear missile defense shield.
In several recent Pentagon and other government reports, the prospect of a Russian nuclear-powered cruise missiles has been frequently cited as a potential new kind of threat. They are launched into the air and able to weave an unpredictable path at relatively low altitudes.
But even with the news surrounding the new threat, tests on the actual missile delivery system continued to be plagued by accidents even prior to last week’s more severe event. Meanwhile, Russia’s explanation for the accident continues to change as the death toll rises. Without regard to the official explanation, the accident may inform American specialists.
Beyond the human toll, American intelligence officials are questioning whether Mr. Putin’s grand dream of a revived arsenal evaporated in that mysterious explosion, or whether it was just an embarrassing setback in Moscow’s effort to build a new class of long-range and undersea weapons that the United States cannot intercept.
Increased candor and cooperation with Russia, perhaps leading to quicker and more truthful explanations, actually would be a benefit of having a president with prior good relations with Russia. However, as always, the “good relationship” Trump has with President Putin appears largely one-sided. Indeed, the two nations’ decision to rip up the former IBM restrictions signed decades ago by Ronald Reagan seems more indicative of two nations accelerating toward new and more dangerous weapons, weapons pointed at each other.
Meanwhile, American scientists are left largely guessing at the severity of the nuclear accident, and the radioactivity unleashed in the Russian Arctic. I will continue to follow the story as information warrants.