I’ve been trying to ignore world politics, but this post from March 1, 2018 on NPR is a bit too strange to pass up. Putin says Russia has nuclear powered missiles. The US has nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers, but not aircraft or missiles. The idea seems crazy because aren’t properly shielded reactors much too heavy to get off the ground? And what about accidents?
Here are some details of the claim:
In his annual state of the nation address on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile that he claimed could fly indefinitely and deliver a warhead to any point on the earth’s surface.
The weapon seems so fantastical that some analysts simply didn’t believe the initial reports of the missile that appeared on social media early Thursday.
“I had my doubts,” says Pavel Podvig, who runs the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces blog.
Podvig thought that perhaps something was lost in translation. But after watching the speech for himself on YouTube, he realized Putin had really made the claim: “Apparently, that’s what he said.”
According to Putin’s prepared remarks to the Russian Federal Assembly, he said that “in late 2017, Russia successfully launched its latest nuclear-powered missile at the Central training ground. During its flight, the nuclear-powered engine reached its design capacity and provided the necessary propulsion.”
An accompanying video appears to show a cruise missile launching into the sky and hurtling through the air. An animation then shows how such a weapon could dodge terrain and missile defenses while flying for thousands of miles around the tip of South America and toward the U.S. West Coast.
“I’m still kind of in shock,” says Edward Geist, a researcher specializing in Russia at the Rand Corp. “My guess is they’re not bluffing, that they’ve flight-tested this thing. But that’s incredible.”
Nuclear propulsion is used on large ships like aircraft carriers and submarines. It allows these vessels to operate for years without refueling, dramatically extending their range and endurance.
In the early days of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union looked into nuclear-powered aircraft as well. Both nations tried installing a nuclear reactor into a strategic bomber. But the reactors were heavy, and the crews faced risks from radiation exposure. Both countries quickly gave up on the idea.
The U.S. did go on to investigate the idea of a nuclear-powered missile, Geist says. Known as the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, the idea was more like a nuclear-powered drone aircraft. “It was actually supposed to fly around autonomously and drop nuclear gravity bombs,” Geist says.
The nuclear reactor that would keep SLAM aloft would also spew radioactive exhaust, Geist says. At the time, that was advertised as a feature, not a bug, because it would have had the added benefit of polluting the Soviet countryside.
“It was supposed to be really, really dirty,” Geist says.
The U.S. got as far as actually building the nuclear engine for Project Pluto, a development project at the Nevada Test Site. The reactor was tested a number of times in the early 1960s, and it performed well. But by that point, awareness had grown about the dangers of nuclear fallout, and arms control treaties were coming into place, Geist says. Those concerns were among the reasons the project died in 1964.
Here’s an old video promoting nuclear powered rockets.
The type of reactor used in Project Pluto was particularly messy because it exposed the nuclear fuel directly to the outside air. Geist says the new Russian missile may use a different system that keeps the fuel somewhat isolated from the air. But, he quickly adds, that wouldn’t make it safe.
“There are a bunch of different ways to do it, and frankly, they’re all terrible,” Geist says.
He suspects that the Russian design would involve what’s known as a “fast reactor,” which is more efficient, but also less safe, than most nuclear reactors. If the missile crashed or the reactor failed, it would trigger a major incident.
“It’s just crazy they field-tested this thing,” he says.
The test is just one of several unconventional systems Putin mentioned in his Thursday speech. The Russian president also discussed “hypersonic” weapons that could maneuver through missile defenses and a nuclear-powered underwater torpedo, which some believe could be used as a doomsday weapon.
The strategic value of all these new nukes is somewhat questionable, says James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Russia, even without these weapons, has the capability to reduce the U.S. into a pile of radioactive soot,” he says.
Acton says he believes the new missile is designed to send a message that Russia is a strong, technologically capable country. Russia has also been worried about the development of U.S. missile defenses. While American officials say the U.S. system is mainly designed to protect against a limited attack from North Korea, the Russians believe it could be used against them as well.
“They think our missile defenses are much more effective than we think our missile defenses are,” Acton says.
President Trump’s budget is requesting $12.9 billion for missile defense programs in the coming year. That money will go toward new radars and additional interceptors. Geist says he expects Russia’s provocations to continue. “They’re sending us a message that they are not OK with our U.S. missile defense posture,” he says.
Other sites say the US has been watching Russia develop these an that we have seen them all crash and burn, raising more questions about nuclear pollution.
The most eye-catching of the announcements is clearly the as yet unnamed nuclear-powered cruise missile. The basic concept is hardly new, but depending on how functional and reliable the final design might be, it could be a potentially game-changing development.
Though we don’t know how the Russians plan to configure this missile, in the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force explored a similar idea with the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, or SLAM. This weapon employed a nuclear-powered ramjet along with conventional rocket boosters to kickstart the system. Once at the appropriate speed, the engine would blow air over the reactor, which could have enough fuel to operate for weeks or months on end, and then force it out of an exhaust nozzle to produce thrust.
In theory, this system allows for almost unlimited range. A computer generated graphic accompanying Putin’s announcement showed the missile plotting a course from Russia into the Atlantic, flying around South America’s Cape Horn, and then continuing on to strike what appeared to be a target in Hawaii.
Cruising at high speed on a circuitous route at extremely low altitude, the missile could potentially avoid surface- and space-based early warning systems and missile defense interceptors. With a two-way data link, operators could potentially modify its course in flight to further confuse an opponent or actively counter any attempts to shoot the weapon down. The American SLAM concept also involved a design carrying multiple nuclear warheads that it could drop on different targets along the way, but it is not clear whether the Russian system includes any features that allow it to strike at more than one location.
I had a recurring dream where I worked at a military base and nukes were going off once, it was the end of the world scene. In one there was a jet with a terrifying thick black exhaust and that dream image was recalled when I read about this new Russian threat.
What if that dream really happened and now this is just a simulation, a chance to live in a world were it did not? Anyone else have that dream and thought? I hope not.