In reports to Russian media on Thursday 8th August, the Russian Ministry of Defence stated that a liquid propellant rocket engine exploded during testing of a 9M730 Burevestnik missile. While it was initially reported that this malfunction killed two people and injured six more, the Russian nuclear agency (Rosatom) later stated that five of its staff members died as a result. International experts, however, are questioning the official Russian story, and believe that the accident was instead caused by the testing of a nuclear-propulsion system.
These suspicions stem from the presence of radiation spikes in the area. Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, told Al-Jazeera, “Liquid fuel missile engines exploding do not give off radiation, and we know that the Russians are working on some kind of nuclear propulsion for a cruise missile.” Panda’s thoughts are reinforced by those of Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Lewis told Reuters that he thinks an accident occurred during testing of the nuclear-powered missile. He bases his thoughts on images from commercial satellites and other data, which identifies a Russian ship in the area as the Serebryanka, a nuclear fuel carrier. “You don’t need this ship for conventional missile tests,” Lewis said. “You need it when you recover a nuclear propulsion unit from the sea floor.” This is not the first time nuclear-propulsion systems have been attempted: the United States tried to develop the same technology during the 1950s. The result, however, was missiles that would not only reach their target, but also disperse radiation along its flight path. As a result, efforts were abandoned.
In the past, Russian President Vladimir Putin has boasted about the capabilities of this new missile. Reuters notes that in a March 2018 speech, Putin claimed that this new missile had “unlimited range” and was “invincible against all existing and prospective missile defence and counter-air defence systems.” If Putin’s claims are correct, then this new Russian missile poses an incredible threat to global peace. If the missile does possess a nuclear propulsion system, then it may represent a paradigm shift in weapons technology. The dispersal of radiation in flight (either through intentional design, or unintentional malfunction) would increase the area which is affected by each individual missile. On top of this, if the missile is invulnerable to current defence systems as Putin claims, then the likelihood of a new arms race increases significantly. Without any defence capability, the United States and other nuclear-armed powers would feel forced to develop their own nuclear-propelled missiles. If such an outcome were to occur, then decades of arms control and non-proliferation movements would be in vain.
Russian development of a nuclear-propelled missile, if accurate, could cause a shift in global power. This is not a missile which only causes damage to its target: it is a missile that could cause massive devastation while in flight, and it need not be equipped with a nuclear warhead. The fact that it could trigger a new arms race is also entirely unacceptable. While the technological development is impressive (it could be utilised as a more efficient propulsion system for rockets, for example), it is unfathomable to imagine any situation in which such a weapon is appropriate to use. Its application towards military purpose should be limited, if not outright prohibited.