Quirks & Quarks

One of Russia's missiles is missing — and it could be a secret nuclear disaster

A test flight of what is rumoured to be a nuclear-powered cruise missile ended in a crash in the Barents sea.

A test flight of what is rumoured to be a nuclear-powered cruise missile ended in a crash

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) and Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov (L) watch the launch of a missile during military exercises in the Barents Sea back in 2005. (AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, American TV network CNBC, citing anonymous US intelligence sources, reported that Russia had apparently lost a nuclear-powered cruise missile during a flight test last November.

The weapon was said to have crashed into the Barents Sea, with Moscow intending to send out ships to recover it. But first, they'd have to find it. And if it has nuclear material on board, especially if the missile is damaged, that could definitely complicate their recovery plan.

There are any number of unconfirmed elements in this story. But here to unravel the story with Torah Kachur, Quirks & Quarks's guest host, is Hans Kristensen, the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington D.C.

Here's Torah's conversation with Mr. Kristensen:

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Torah Kachur: First of all, how much of this is real? We've heard a lot about anonymous sources this week. Good or bad. How much can we actually look into this report?

Hans Kristensen: Well, there has to be a fire to smoke and there's a fair amount of factual events that have happened. There's some nuances we don't know about, but it seems clear that Russia has developed, or is working on developing, a very long-range, ground-launched nuclear-powered cruise missile. And the idea is by using a nuclear reactor, they would sort of be able to fly anywhere to another point in the planet. But before you can get to that, you need to run through a testing program. So they've done a large number of flight tests of this system. And last year, a couple of them crashed near Barents Sea area and one of them apparently in the ocean.

TK: But this is different than having a nuclear warhead.

HK: Yes, good point. This is just a machine, so to speak, that's supposed to bring the warhead somewhere. So a cruise missile is a pilotless vehicle that can fly and navigate and get to a point that people wanted to fly to. But you're right on the warhead itself would not be onboard during these test programs.

TK: Ok. So then why nuclear-powered at all?

HK: That's all about range. There are lots of conventionally powered cruise missiles both fired from the ground, from aircraft and from ships and what have you. But they all use sort of conventional propulsion where fuel is burned in one way or the other and it propels the the vehicle for 1,000 and 2,000 perhaps a little more kilometers. But in this case, the Russian engineers persuaded apparently the Russian government that wouldn't it be great if we could put a nuclear reactor in there so that once we have a launch, that reactor takes over and provides the energy so it can fly to the other side of the planet if we want to. Somebody must have asked why do you want to do that? We have ballistic missiles that can reach any point on the planet and then the argument was yes, but the Americans are building a missile defense system that's going to get bigger. So we need weapons that can sort of zigzag their way around these missile defenses even if it's to the other side of the planet.

TK: OK, so they're testing these terrifying things and they supposedly lost one in the ocean?

HK: Yeah. Stories started to come out about this intelligence official and a couple of countries started talking about it to journalists and so we learned new things about it from the U.S. intelligence community that a large number of tests have been conducted, but also from the Norwegian intelligence community that apparently last year, two tests were conducted up there —  one landed on the ground and another one flew a little longer and landed in the ocean. Supposedly the one they're looking for right now is the one that disappeared in the waters.

TK: This is the Barents Sea. This is north of Scandinavia. This is a rugged, poorly mapped area of the planet. How do you go about finding a nuclear powered cruise missile?

HK: Well, it's also a very busy area when it comes to military activities. Submarines are in these waters more or less all the time — not only Russian submarines but also NATO submarines that are coming to sneak and listen to what the Russians are up to. So one of the issues of course is when you lose a missile like that, who gets it first. Will the Russians be able to get through it or will the Americans come over with some special-equipped submarine, pick it up and go home and study it? But whatever it is, they're supposedly still in the process of trying to find it and they can use of course different technologies for it. You could have a pinger on the missile itself that can give away its location. If other people are looking for it too, you might not want to have that. So the other option is to use some kind of underwater sonar where you use drones that beam down signals and they bounce back into the radar system and you can detect missile objects on the ground and then lift it up from there.

TK: How would a leak complicate any type of recovery?

HK: Well, radioactive substances could escape and contaminate the missile itself, the water around it, and people who will handle the missile during this salvage operation could become contaminated. That is a concern, or the ships that are on board could become contaminated. So this is a real dilemma. As soon as you have nuclear material involved, everything becomes more complex. You have to be much more cautious. So one might have to ask, why on earth would anybody develop a nuclear-powered cruise missile?

TK: Yes. But how much credence are you giving to these reports.

HK: Well, enough that Russians have something under way. We don't know many details about it. But we do know that U.S. and NATO intelligence communities are interested in it, follow it and are reporting on it. So something is going on. We'll have to wait and see. I mean this is really like you said, James Bond.