Russia Radioactive Again?

According to our news media, Russia has been radioactive since at least the Trump inauguration, if not Chernobyl. Today, a scintillating story has broken, telling of released radiation following explosion of an experimental engine using “radioisotopes and liquid propellant.” The engine is speculated to be related to Russia’s development of a hypersonic missile.

The “radioisotopes” got my attention. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG‘s) have been around for quite some time and used to power  niche items like isolated lighthouses and spacecraft. They use heat resulting from the known and predictable decay of various radioactive heavy elements to produce electricity.

However, the quantity of electricity generated by RTG’s, while long-lasting, is quite limited – in the range of 10 – 100 watts; think lighting your grandfather’s 8mm movie camera floodlights. Hardly enough to power a hypersonic missile, no matter what the liquid fuel. Previously, John Walker has described proposed and early development of nuclear propulsion for aircraft and rocket engines, but these were fission reactors. So, several questions arise: 1. was reference to radioisotopes simply covering up for an actual nuclear accident of some kind? 2. Is there some plausible use for an RTG in a hypersonic missile along with a “liquid propellant”? Presumably, this missile is at least in part, air-breathing; what would electricity add to that? 3. Is it imaginable this was actually a miniaturized fission reactor squeezed into a hypersonic missile? The ones I have seen are pretty small. Seems unlikely.

Anybody else find this fascinating? Any thoughts or answers to these questions?

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Author: civil westman

Driven to achieve outward and visible things, I became a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Eventually, I noticed the world had still not beat a path to my door with raves. Now, as a septuagenarian I still work anesthesia part-time, fly my flight simulator to keep my brain sparking and try to elude that nagging, intrusive reminder that my clock is running out. Before it does, I am trying, earnestly, to find a theory of everything - to have even a brief "God's-eye" view of it all before the "peace which passeth all understanding."

10 thoughts on “Russia Radioactive Again?”

  1. Interesting.  I cannot answer questions, being largely ignorant, but I find your comment on “isotopes” chilling.  This is exactly the way the Russians do it.

    Russia is like a teen-ager who tinkers with a portal to Hell in his bedroom while stamping his foot about Mom not going in there no matter how much blood flows under the door.

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  2. I can imagine using a small RTG on a liquid fuel weapon that was not going to be actively maintained.  Like a Doctor Strangelove doomsday weapon.

    Consistent with Russia’s wacky weapon plans, imagine they were building a torpedo or missile that would be dropped onto the ocean floor off our coast and sit there for years until launch.

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  3. civil westman:
    1. was reference to radioisotopes simply covering up for an actual nuclear accident of some kind?

    That area does not seem like the place they would be testing hypersonic vehicles. It’s more likely that they were performing an upgrade on deployed nuclear warhead torpedoes. Torpedo propellant is notoriously prone to accidents.

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  4. I think what we have in this story is an example of the confusion that results when incomplete information is poorly translated from Russian to English and then interpreted by ignorant “journalists” prone to hyperventilating when anything “nook-you-lar” is involved.  We must try to decode what is really going on from the scraps of information which make it through the distortion field.

    First of all, as noted in the main post, this is certainly not a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).  While useful for modest amount of electrical power and heating in spacecraft and remote installations, the amount of power generated is far too small for use in propulsion.  Second, the media reports all seem to feature the distribution of iodine to protect against exposure to released radioactive material.  Potassium iodide used in high doses as a thyroid blocking agent (TBA) saturates the thyroid gland with non-radioactive iodine-127 (the natural stable isotope) to prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine-131, a highly radioactive (half-life 8 days) beta emitter which is a common fission product present in nuclear weapons fallout and nuclear reactor accidents.  The key words here are “fission product”: a radioisotope thermoelectric generator does not involve nuclear fission; it generates power from the heat emitted by the decay of a radioisotope such as plutonium-238, strontium-90, polonium-210, or americium-241.  While these elements can be hazardous if released into the environment and ingested (particularly if aerosolised and inhaled), they are not taken up by the thyroid and iodine TBA is useless as protection against them.  So, if we give credibility to reports that iodine TBA is being used, the release must be from a fission reactor of some kind, not an RTG.

    But what kind of fission reactor?  If we accept the statement of “liquid fuel”, then the obvious supposition would be that this is a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine using a compact unshielded fission reactor to heat liquid hydrogen and expel it from a rocket nozzle.  (Properly speaking, the hydrogen is not fuel, but rather reaction mass, as it is not burned but simply expelled as a hot gas, but we can’t possibly expect “journalists” to comprehend this distinction.)  Rocket engines of this type were developed and tested on the ground by the U.S. in projects Rover and NERVA between the 1950s and early 1970s.  This development is described in James Dewar’s 2004 book To the End of the Solar System.  The Soviets developed and ground tested a similar engine, the RD-0410, between 1965 and the 1980s and, like the U.S., put it on the shelf due to financial constraints and lack of a near-term mission requirement.  The Russians are said to be developing a modern NTR called Транспортно-энергетический модуль (TEM), as a joint project of the Keldysh Research Centre, NIKIET, and Rosatom and to have conducted a component test in November 2018.  Reports about this are confusing, and it may not, in fact, be an NTR but rather a power reactor for a nuclear-electric propulsion system.  A failure of an NTR test would be a nuclear reactor accident involving liquid hydrogen “fuel” which could release iodine-131 for which distributing TBA would be appropriate.

    The other possibility is that the mention of “liquid fuel” is erroneous and that this was a failed test of the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear ramjet cruise missile which has been acknowledged by Russia and for which a test of the nuclear propulsion component was reported in January 2019 by TASS.  There is no information in this report as to the site at which the test was conducted.  An article in The Diplomat claims the test was at the Kapustin Yar missile range, which is in southwest Russia and distant from arctic Severodvinsk where the explosion is claimed to have occurred.  However, another Diplomat article from 2018 reports that tests of the Burevestnik missile were conducted from the Pankovo site on Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic Ocean island where the Soviet Union and Russia have long conducted their nuclear fun and games.  It is entirely reasonable that development for a test campaign at Novaya Zemlya would be conducted in Severodvinsk, which is a secured area in which nuclear powered submarines are developed.  The U.S. was developing a similar nuclear powered ramjet cruise missile in the 1950s and early sixties as Project Pluto.  The project was canceled in 1964 because the Minuteman ICBM, which was entering service, was considered to be much more effective and less expensive.  Here is Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the Burevestnik with a sensationalistic animation of its unlimited range and ability to evade radar.

    An accident with the reactor unit of such a missile would also release iodine-131, but would not involve “liquid fuel”.

    This is about as much as I can tease out from what has been reported.

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  5. ctlaw:
    I can imagine using a small RTG on a liquid fuel weapon that was not going to be actively maintained.  Like a Doctor Strangelove doomsday weapon.

    RTGs are a poor choice for powering nuclear weapons and have never been used in that application as far as I know.  The problem is that for the amount of power they generate they are heavy and also generate a large amount of waste heat which must be disposed of.  This isn’t a problem in space, but for a weapon which is going to be encapsulated in an ICBM warhead or bomb, it’s difficult to deal with.  (In an undersea mine, it would not be a problem.)  Nuclear weapons typically need a large amount of pulsed electrical power for a limited time and in the U.S. have usually employed thermal batteries such as the molten salt battery.  These batteries have essentially unlimited shelf life until they are activated by igniting the pyrotechnics that melt the electrolyte.

    In any case, an accident involving an RTG in a nuclear weapon would not release iodine-131 unless the nuclear weapon actually detonated, which would be detectable in many other ways.

    Direct charging radioactive batteries were developed in the 1960s as a very long-lasting source of low power and, given the applications notes in the linked advertisement, were intended for weapons applications, but I do not know if they were ever actually used.  They, as well, would not result in a radioiodine release.

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  6. Thank you all for clarifying comments. Just what I was hoping for. The purported nuclear powered (atmospheric) cruise missile, then, must  use fission as a power source. It is hard to imagine what advantage it would confer over chemical propulsion.

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  7. Russians are liars, so be careful about parsing their press releases too carefully.

    If they were working on an “isotope propulsion system” in Severodvinsk, then I am guessing they are working on a submarine.   I think ctlaw in probably thinking in the right direction.   I am imagining a slow-moving bottom crawler drone that would creep into position and wait for years before striking.   

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  8. MJBubba:
    Russians are liars, so be careful about parsing their press releases too carefully.

    If they were working on an “isotope propulsion system” in Severodvinsk, then I am guessing they are working on a submarine.   I think ctlaw in probably thinking in the right direction.   I am imagining a slow-moving bottom crawler drone that would creep into position and wait for years before striking.   

    I haven’t the foggiest about how to do it, but I would guess the cognoscenti could calculate the size of tidal waves – say on the east coast – from an optimally-placed Tsar Bomba somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic. Talk about a force multiplier.

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  9. civil westman:
    I haven’t the foggiest about how to do it, but I would guess the cognoscenti could calculate the size of tidal waves – say on the east coast – from an optimally-placed Tsar Bomba somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic. Talk about a force multiplier.

    Russia is claimed, based upon various sources with different levels of dodginess, to be developing a weapon system called Poseidon (previously “Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System”, NATO reporting name Kanyon), which the Pentagon Nuclear Posture Review is reported to have described as a “new intercontinental, nuclear armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo”.  All of the “claimed”, “reported”, etc. are because this is based upon information from Popular Mechanics, CNN, and so on, not primary sources.

    Poseidon is claimed to have a range of 10,000 km (powered by a nuclear reactor and without a crew requiring consumables, the range would be essentially unlimited) and a top speed of 100 km/hour.  The warhead in leaked photos is 1.5 metres in diameter by 4 metres, which could accommodate a weapon with yield in the tens of megatons.  In his speech of March 2018, Vladimir Putin said that Poseidon could attack U.S. ports.  Other reports claim it may be equipped with a cobalt salted weapon designed to create long-term nuclear contamination of the target area flooded by a tsunami it creates.  The size of the tsunami created by an undersea nuclear detonation depends upon the yield of the weapon, the topography of the sea floor where it is detonated, and the topography of the coast where it strikes and cannot be estimated without knowing these details.

    There are any number of exceptionally stupid videos on YouTube about this device, many narrated by the ubiquitous robot voice.

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  10. Flash! Today, there are reports from Russia that this was indeed a miniature fission reactor used to power flight (very long endurance flight at that) of some new weapon/contraption. I would love to know if this is true and, if so, the technical details.

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