American intelligence officials have indicated that they believe an explosion in northern Russia last week may have been related to work on a nuclear-powered cruise missile, The New York Times reported on Monday.
Thursday’s explosion at the Nenoksa Missile Test Site near Severodvinsk released radiation into the atmosphere, killing at least seven people and fueling speculation regarding Russia’s pursuit of a weapons technology examined and abandoned by Washington during the height of the Cold War.
If successfully deployed, such a weapon would pose a strategic threat to the United States because it would be capable of bypassing current American missile defenses. However, there is currently no indication that the Russians have managed to succeed where their geopolitical rivals have failed.
Unnamed intelligence sources told the Times that they believed the explosion involved a prototype missile known in NATO circles as the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, which could theoretically reach anywhere on the planet. Russian President Vladimir Putin showed off an animation of such a system last year.
While the Russians initially denied that the explosion had a nuclear component, state news agency TASS later reported somewhat enigmatically that those who were killed during the missile test had been “involved in work related to a radioisotope power source.”
Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a noted weapons and proliferation expert, tweeted that he and his colleagues suspected “that something went wrong during or after a Russian test of its nuclear powered cruise missile.”
“First, Russia appears to have recently moved SSC-X-9 testing to Nenoksa. In the past year, Russia built a launch area that closely resembles the one removed from Novaya Zemlya with a shelter on rails,” he tweeted.
Went on record with @JonathanLanday about our suspicion that something went wrong during or after a Russian test of its nuclear powered cruise missile (9M730 Burevestnik, NATO name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall). Three pieces of evidence underpin our suspicion.https://t.co/zw5nIuyD73
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) August 10, 2019
“Second, we can see the Serebryanka, a nuclear fuel carrier, sitting off the coast inside the exclusion zone. (It is visible in satellite images and its AIS transponder is turned on.) This vessel was previously used last summer in an effort to recover a crashed SSC-X-9. Third, ROSATOM, the Russian state atomic energy corporation, has now admitted that five of its employees were killed while providing ‘engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources in a liquid propulsion system.'”
Tensions between the United States and Russia have risen in recent years over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well as differences between Washington and Moscow over Iran’s nuclear program and the Kremlin’s efforts to sway the 2016 US presidential election.
Washington recently announced that it would accelerate its development of new cruise and ballistic missile systems following its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) nuclear treaty with Russia.
Russia recently lost a nuclear-powered submarine and 14 sailors.