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A recent nuclear leak may relate to one of the country’s new nuclear-powered strategic weapons. These are part of a range of new ‘super weapons’ unveiled by President Putin on March 1, 2018. Russia is testing a nuclear-powered mega-torpedo called Poseidon, and a nuclear-powered cruise missile called Burevestnik. If either are to blame, then it would not be the first radiation spike caused by testing one of these weapons.
On June 23 the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) revealed that scientists in Sweden had detected higher than usual levels of radiation. Based on analysis of the weather, the origin was projected to be in Northern Russia. Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo tweeted that they had detected “3 isotopes; Cs-134, Cs-137 & Ru-103 associated w/Nuclear fission”. He went on to say that “These isotopes are most likely from a civil source.” and that it is “outside the CTBTO’s mandate to identify the exact origin.”
In response Russia’s nuclear energy body has denied that it originated from its two nuclear power stations in the region. However, it is not only civilian power stations which use nuclear reactors. Tom Moore, a nuclear policy expert and former Senior Professional Staff Member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, believes that these military reactors cannot be ruled out:
“CTBTO radionuclide monitoring is intended to discriminate explosive events and to complement seismic monitoring. Not to effectively rule in or rule out a source of radionuclides as being civil or military reactors”
Possible Cause: Burevestnik Cruise Missile
The first military system which comes to mind is the new Burevestnik cruise missile. It’s name means ‘Storm Bringer’ in Russian, after the Petral sea bird. It is more formally known by the designation 9M730 and NATO code name Skyfall. This is a nuclear-armed cruise missile which uses a nuclear engine to give it virtually unlimited range. Burevestnik is the natural candidate because it is airborne. So any accident would likely release radioactive material into the sky.
This may have previously happened on August 9, 2019. There was a fatal radiation incident at the State Central Navy Testing Range at Nyonoksa. This is near to Severodvinsk in Russia’s arctic north, the same area that the CTBTO has pointed towards this time. Then it was caused by an explosion in a rocket engine. Many analysts believe that this was most likely related to the Burevestnik missile.
Possible Cause: Poseidon Drone-Torpedo
The other weapon in the frame is Poseidon. This is a massive nuclear-powered torpedo that will be launched from specially built submarines. At 60-78 feet long it is about twice the size of a Trident missile. Its designation is believed to be 2m39 and it is known in NATO as Kanyon. Its virtually unlimited range and high autonomy mean to make it hard to classify. The U.S. Government has described it as an Intercontinental, nuclear-armed, undersea autonomous torpedo. It is a weapon worthy of a bond-villain which literally goes underneath missile defenses. Its threat is slow but inevitable doom to coastal cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
While Poseidon probably doesn’t have very much shielding on its reactor, it is normally underwater. So any radiation leak may not reach the atmosphere. But it would be lifted out of the water after a test launch, so there is room for an incident that could get detected hundreds of miles away in Scandinavia.
Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) On The Suspects
Open Source Intelligence analysts have been following these weapons. Evgeniy Maksimov noted that flight tests of Burevestnik were probably being conducted. He noted two no-fly zones closed for June 22-27 at a missile test range. But the launch site was far south of where the radiation is believed to originate.
A better candidate may, therefore, be Poseidon, Vessels believed to be associated with its tests were active in the region at the time. The special support vessel Akademik Aleksandrov was at sea around June 18 to 23, in the area of interest. This ship is suspected of being involved in retrieving Poseidon weapons. Twitter user Frank Bottema found a matching vessel using radar satellite imagery.
We may never know for sure what was the cause of the heightened radiation levels. But Russia’s denials that it was from a civilian power plant, combined with the ongoing tests, point a finger at the of nuclear-powered weapons. This reignites the debate about how safe these projects are, even in peacetime.