US calls on Russia to abandon ‘flying Chernobyl’

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Currently in development, the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile Burevestnik 9M730 is highly controversial. Last year it was the cause of a serious accident, raising doubts on the safety of such a system. For some, Russia should simply abandon this program.

Named SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO, the Burevestnik 9M730 (“Storm Bird”) is an experimental, nuclear-powered cruise missile. Intended for the Russian military, this missile would have almost unlimited range and could defeat any missile defense system. It is also one of six Russian strategic weapons unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in early 2018.

However, this nuclear missile has been the subject of a very important controversy since August 2019. Indeed, an accident occurred at a military test base located only two kilometers from the village of Nyonoksa (Arkhangelsk oblast). The missile exploded, causing seven deaths. In addition, the exposure released an unknown amount of radionuclides into the atmosphere. Thus, there was significant radioactive fallout in the area.

The day after the accident, the Russian nuclear energy agency Rosatom justified itself by saying that it was testing an isotopic power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine. However, experts and the media quickly established a link with the Burevestnik 9M730. In addition, the peak of radioactivity detected in northeastern Europe in June 2020 may be a cause of the development of this missile.

An article published by Asia Times on July 28, 2020 quotes Marshall Billingslea, head of arms control for the United States government. During a hearing in the Senate, he said that such weapons should not exist. The latter also explained that he had spoken to his Russian counterpart, referring to “enormous waste of funds” and the renunciation “of this kind of destabilizing idea”. For Marshall Billingslea, the Burevestnik 9M730 is an apocalyptic weapon whose possession is absolutely not justified.

The type of propulsion of the missile is very much a concern. Although sources are scarce, some press releases from the authorities have already mentioned a fuel test involving radioisotopes.

The reaction of the Russians was virulent, in particular by the voice of the Russian senator Alexeï Pouchkov. The man explained that the United States should refrain from giving advice for several reasons. Alexeï Pouchkov recalled the withdrawal of the United States from the Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) as well as from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (Start).