Something fishy appears to be going on with Russia's radiation-monitoring stations.
In the weeks following a fatal nuclear accident at a naval weapons shooting range in Nyonoksa, four radioactive-particle sensors sending data from the Russian territory to an international monitoring network mysteriously went offline. The outages were originally reported by CNN with reference to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).
The data transfer failure was first explained as a technical problem, however, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov later released a statement saying the nation's cooperation with international radioactive monitoring was “purely voluntary” and shouldn’t affect their weapons development. In other words, “mind your own business.”
While some of the radiation-monitoring stations in Siberia have now resumed sharing their data, the international community is now questioning whether the outage was a coincidence or part of a cover-up of the nuclear accident in Nyonoksa.
On Thursday, August 8, 2019, an explosion at a military testing ground in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region caused radiation readings in neighboring cities to spike to 2 microsieverts per hour for about 30 minutes. That spike is around five to 20 times the background dose of 0.1 and 0.4 microsieverts per hour, although it is nowhere near deadly and not terribly harmful.
Nevertheless, Russian authorities have confirmed that five people died in the blast, all of whom are believed to have been weapons scientists. Little more has been said publically, aside from the Russian state nuclear agency ROSATOM claiming the explosion was a "rocket engine" with a "radioisotope power source."
There’s since been speculation that the disaster was caused by the failed launch of a 9M730 Burevestnik missile, dubbed "Skyfall" by NATO allies, an experimental nuclear-armed cruise missile with an intercontinental range that's powered by a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear reactors harness energy through a process known as fission, whereby an atomic nucleus splits into two or more smaller nuclei. Since this is an exothermic reaction, the fission of heavy elements releases a vast amount of heat and energy with a relatively small amount of fuel. In theory, a missile fueled by a nuclear reactor could cruise around with a near-indefinite energy source.
When unveiling the superweapon in March 2018, President Vladamir Putin said the missile had a “practically unlimited range, unpredictable flight path and the capability to impregnate practically all interception lines," adding that it "is invulnerable to all existing and future anti-missile and air defense weapons.”
Needless to say, the weapon is highly controversial.
“Effectively, Russia is thinking about flying around nuclear reactors,” William Tobey, a former deputy administrator at the US National Nuclear Security Administration, told the Associated Press. “The very idea of this system is, I think, a risky system. It probably poses more risk to the Russian people than to the American people. If it crashes, it could spread radiation.”
In yet another bizarre twist, the deadly superweapon was named after a seabird by the Russian people in a public vote organized by the Russian military – how cute!