Streetwise Professor

August 27, 2019

It Was Almost Certainly a Petrel Nuclear Powered Cruise Missile That ‘Sploded in Severodvinsk

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:40 pm

The odds that what blew up in Russia on 8 August had a nuclear reactor, rather than an isotope battery power source, are becoming increasingly strong. Specifically, four isotopes associated with nuclear fission, strontium-91, barium-139, barium-140, and lanthanum-140, have been detected.

Norwegian nuclear safety expert Nils Bøhmer says the information removes any doubts about the explosion’s nuclear nature.
“The presence of decay products like barium and strontium is coming from a nuclear chain reaction. It is proof that it was a nuclear reactor that exploded,” Bøhmer says.

He explains that such a mixture of short-lived isotopes would not have been found if it was simply an “isotope source” in a propellant engine that exploded like Russian authorities first said.

. . . .

Several public statements from Russian officials in the days after the accident, which happened on a barge offshore from Nenoksa test site, claimed the failed test involved an “isotope source of a liquid-fueled propulsion unit.” That triggered speculations it could have been a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). Such isotope sources are previously known to come from lighthouses in the remote Arctic regions and space satellites.

“Had it been an RTG none of these isotopes would have been detected,” Bøhmer says.

Some still express doubt it was a nuclear powered Petrel cruise missile, because the initial explosion allegedly involved a liquid fuel rocket, and Petrel is allegedly launched using a solid fuel rocket. But there is no definitive proof that Petrel uses solid fuel rockets, and Russia has a well known preference for liquid fuel rockets. Indeed, perhaps the reason for the test is unsatisfactory performance of the solid fuel engine.

The mooted alternatives, the Poseidon nuclear submersible drone, or a seabed launched version thereof, don’t fit the facts. Although it is speculated that Poseidon will have a nuclear power plant (a closed cycle nuclear gas turbine or a pressurized water system), it would not require liquid fueled rockets, being essentially a torpedo that operates under water.

The bottom line is that the Russians almost certainly lied about the type of weapon that exploded. (This is my shocked face. No! Really!) Moreover, the weapon is most likely the Petrel, because that puts together a rocket and a nuclear reactor, and the alternative candidates don’t.

I wonder, though not very hard, if this will give Putin and his military people second thoughts about pursuing this weapon. Given his personal investment in it, and his apparent paranoia about US missile defenses, I doubt it. In fact, he’ll probably redouble the effort.

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  1. Interesting SWP. I was at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas recently, where there is a display of the NERVA nuclear rocket engine from 1963. Although only a quarter of the output of the Saturn V’s F1 engine, the display appeared to indicate it could sustain it almost indefinitely by stating the test was shutdown after two hours of running. Wonder why further development never progressed.

    Comment by Crankshaft — August 31, 2019 @ 6:31 am

  2. @Crankshaft–Commenter @doc worked and that project and has mentioned in several of his comments why it was not continued.

    Pinging @doc, to see if he’d like to recapitulate.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 31, 2019 @ 5:25 pm

  3. Trawling through NASA SBIR solicitations today professor and found one that referred to the Ranger /NERVA program, as interplanetary propulsion. Seems like NASA are interested in this again. I noticed your friend Elon talking about them too!

    Comment by Crankshaft — October 5, 2019 @ 6:00 am

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