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Russia Says Small Nuclear Reactor Blew Up in Deadly Accident (bloomberg.com)
95 points by tantalor 71 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments

Cruise missiles are generally short range. The main advantage of a nuclear cruise missile is its added long range and maintained ability to stay mostly undetectable and unstoppable to missile defense since they can travel at low altitude.

The other advantage is political. These missiles take a long a time to reach destination, and the time can be extended by a prolonged voyage (circle the globe a few times). The only people who can disarm the warhead are the enemies. You're not going to blow up your enemies while the missile is in the air. It's a great apolitical tool. Launch a missile and everyone starts talking and giving in to your demands.

Better article: https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-nuclear-agency-confirms...

What a clickbaity headline and a sloppy reporting job, didn't expect that from Bloomberg. The title says reactor but the content implies RTG, which is hazardous but many times less radioactive, and is completely different from a nuclear reactor. Also a bunch of unrelated facts, they even managed to mention Kursk disaster somehow. (I guess that's inevitable when there's little to no info available but you still need to write something)

Lets not forget that Bloomberg was also the publication that ran with and defended that whole 'Supermicro is totally getting spy hardware added to their motherboards by the Chinese government even though no one can seem to locate it' story. Something's... possibly askew with them of late.

Sounds similar to Project Pluto: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pluto

>iodine, which is believed to help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation.

"Believed to"? I thought that was accepted as fact?

Yes it is and there is a rather simple explanation.

The thyroid gland has limited capacity for storing iodine and iodine tablets make sure it's saturated with the non-radioative isotope. Any more iodine (in this case radioactive) will then be excreted. This only works as 'radiation protection' when the saturation has been reached before being exposed to the radioactive iodine of course.

1. Liquid iodine is said to be inefficient for that use through oral ingestion

2. Excess iodine will mess up thyroid, but that is believed to be of lesser harm than it being messed up by radiation

It’s a fact for certain types of radiation exposure. Unhelpful for others.

Is radioactive iodine the only radioactive isotope we'd expect to be exposed to.at lethal doses?

All kinds of radioactive isotopes might enter or attach to your body in many ways as consequence of a nuclear accident. Any radioactive particle that gets close to or into your body will cause some damage depending on the type (alpha, beta, gamma), strength of radiation and duration of exposure.

If you are not exposed to an immediately lethal dose, the damage in the body is a statistical thing. The longer and the more intense the radioactive particles remain on or in your body, the more likely is the chance for a serious health issue. The strategy is to remove radioactive particles as fast as possible to minimize the probability of damage.

Radioactive particles on your skin can be washed away. (This is not so fun as the every-day shower).

Radioactive particles that you inhaled are a really bad thing, I do not know how to deal with radioactive particles in the lungs (except wearing filter masks in time).

Particles that entered the body with food will be excreted within a couple of hours.

But: your body has an organ - the thyroid gland - which collects iodine from your food and stores it long time. A radioactive form of iodine - iodine 131 - is a common byproduct of nuclear contamination. If this gets stored in your body, it remains long enough to dramatically raise the chance of cancer. Therefore you fill your thyroid gland with non-radioactive iodine, hopefully BEFORE your body gets contaminated with radioactive iodine.

So the special thing with iodine 131 is, that it is common, that the body does not make a difference to nonradioactive iodine and there is an organ that stores it.

By taking iodine pills, you only improve probabilities on that one factor! There are plenty other ways to take damage from radioactive accidents.

Has this actually been tried? I know there's no way to do a proper controlled test, at least in humans ("OK,you take this pill, and you take this placebo. Now, here, breathe this."), but is there any naturally-occurring data that might imply that this actually works? Say, distributing pills in a place with a natural radioactive iodine source, or counting up thyroid cancers after Chernobyl and comparing people-who-took-pills to people who didn't?

I assume there is at least a rat study.



"Commonly known as thyroid blocking, taking potassium iodide (KI)1 before or at the beginning of exposure to radioactive iodine blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland, thus reducing exposure of the thyroid to internal radiation. KI does not protect against any other radioactive substances, e.g. radioactive caesium. It is not a generic radiation antidote."

"Taking KI shortly before or immediately at the time of exposure to radioactive iodine offers the most effective protection. [...] If taken 4 hours after exposure, protection will be reduced by half; taking KI more than 24 hours after exposure will offer no protection."

"A single dose of KI is usually sufficient for adequate protection for 24 hours."

"Age group - Mass of KI (mg) - Example of fraction of tablets (130 mg KI tablets)

>12 years and adults - 130mg - 1

3 – 12 years - 65mg - 1/2

1 month – 3 years - 32mg - 1/4

Neonate (< 1) - 16mg - 1/8"

"The risk of thyroid cancer in children following exposure to radioactive iodine is higher than in adults; younger age groups are at highest risk. As a result, the protection of children must be considered a priority"

"During pregnancy, the mother's thyroid gland is metabolically more active than in non-pregnant women, and the amount of radioactive iodine that will be taken up by the thyroid increases in comparison with other adults. The foetal thyroid gland may be exposed to radioactive iodine through the placenta, but will also be protected by the KI taken by the mother. [...] The amount of KI that a breastfeeding woman will provide to an infant through breast milk is not enough to protect the thyroid of an infant exposed to radioactive iodine."

"The risk of side effects from KI increases with age, while the risk of radiation-induced thyroid cancer in individuals over 40-years old is low. For this reason, thyroid blocking with KI is not generally indicated in adults over 40 years of age, unless the projected radiation dose to the thyroid rises to levels that threaten the thyroid gland and interfere with its function."

"Adverse effects of KI on thyroid function are more frequent in individuals with other, pre-existing thyroid disorders. These disorders are more common in older adults and in the elderly than in children or young adults."

No. Caesium 137 is probably the worst offender, but there is not much you can do as an individual other than to stay away from contact with it.

Also, this is not about lethal doses. There is typically very small area in immediate vicinity of the explosion that is directly lethal (like, LD50 lethal).

Most of the effect on large area is through increased radiation and through radioactive elements getting concentrated in food chain and in various tissues of your body.

You might never know if the radiation from the event was what is killing you but this can be measured statistically to say "over X years there is Y deaths additional to what could be expected that could be attributed to increased radiation".

Thank you everyone for giving very informative and serious replies to my question.

> The blast occurred Aug. 8 during a test of a missile that used “isotope power sources” on an offshore platform in the Arkhangelsk region, close to the Arctic Circle, Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom said over the weekend. The Defense Ministry initially reported two were killed in the accident, which it said involved testing of a liquid-fueled missile engine. The ministry didn’t mention the nuclear element.

Maybe a stupid question but why would they be anywhere near the missile during the actual testing?

Or was this some kind of premature explosion while configuring or fueling it?

From what I can gather reading Russian-language media, it was a sea platform-based static(?) fire of a hydrazine-fueled rocket with an RTG onboard (little of which makes sense to me, to be honest; might be a cover-up/lie by MoD, or it might be some experimental payload or vehicle). The fire supposedly happened after the test, when the crew approached it. Some people were thrown to the sea by the blast and proclaimed dead after an unsuccessful search and rescue operation. The "radiation spike" reported in the article was a minor increase in radon concentration, the link with the accident being unclear.

In any case it's probably not the infamous SSC-X-9/Burevestnik missile or we'd have seen at least some indication from independent monitoring sources already. (which are aplenty in the area, for obvious reasons). I'm waiting for radioisotope analysis confirming it was the nuclear thermal engine but there's still nothing, after 4 days.

It is strange indeed, given that this is not the first time lots of people die via missile explosion in Russia (see Nedelin catastrophe[1]).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nedelin_catastrophe

There was explosion on the sea platform and men were thrown off it by the blast to the water. They were searching for them for a while before pronouncing them dead. This was reported in the Russian media.

Well if it is a nuclear thermal engine (aka "isotope power sources"), then the nuclear reactor IS the engine and there's not really anything to test without it.

> Maybe a stupid question but why would they be anywhere near the missile during the actual testing?

They are Russians https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3604355/

Very poor H&S regime unfortunately - its a bit grim but in this case you hope that the fatalities died quickly.

Possibly because it went up then turned and came back down on top of them some distance away.

This weapon, and Project Pluto, makes me so angry. It's very existence is a crime against humanity.

I don't really see what Russia or the US has to gain from designing new kinds of nuclear weapons. They already have the capability to wipe out whatever they're aiming at.

While it's easy to annihilate a city, it's hard to destroy a bunker or missile silo. The people who keep nuclear weapons want to be able to hit a narrow target while evading countermeasures. Maybe even burrow into the ground before setting off the main charge. This is easier with smaller payloads.

There was once a wide consensus to not continue with this arms race. But unfortunately it broke down.

Although regular nuclear weapons could be intercepted only on paper, no one has tried to do it with real weapons that the other side would use yet, potentially it's believed that it could happen. So the goal is to have faster nuclear weapons that would have less chances to be intercepted. Though, I have doubt it was the incentive in this case. If you watched Russian news, the only thing that gives at least some positive response among people are the achievements of the military industry. Official media milk this theme by producing one note per week (sometimes more) in regard of "promising" weapons that "have no counterparts in the west/world". Most of modern weapons are just soviet developments, so they need at least one real wunderwaffe to demonstrate that last 20 years were not for nothing.

Testing is necessary, but if you're only testing "faster", couldn't you replace the nuclear warhead with a rock?

The technology exists to shoot down ICBMs. It’s not yet deployed in sufficient numbers to be significant against an all-out attack from Russia, but that could change. I’m sure they want to stay ahead of the curve.

If 'MAD ensures peace' is the justification for nuclear weapons being allowed to exist, why are we trying so damn hard to break it?

You can't have it both ways. Either MAD works, and anyone working on and building ICBM defenses is a dangerous lunatic, and a threat to world peace...

Or MAD doesn't work, and anyone controlling thousands of nuclear weapons is a dangerous lunatic and a threat to world peace.

We either need to stop trying to break MAD, or disarm. What we do not need, is to build anti-ICBM installations. I do not understand why this is not ever brought up in public discourse. Do people think that the risk of nuclear Armageddon just went away with the Cold War?

“Do people think that the risk of nuclear Armageddon just went away with the Cold War?”

I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes.” I’m baffled as to why, but that seems to be the case.

I’m also pretty sure that MAD is a very risky thing, and we really can’t count on it long term. The fact that we’ve made it many decades without a nuclear war indicates that the probability is low, but not necessarily low enough.

The problem is, what do you do about it? I agree that we (as in humanity) need to disarm, but it’s not going to happen. It’s a classic prisoners’ dilemma: we’re best off if nobody has nukes, but then someone can gain a huge advantage by acquiring them, and then everybody else is better off if they also acquire them. (And remember that game theory was created to analyze MAD!)

If MAD isn’t fully effective and disarmament isn’t going to happen, then building defenses makes sense.

> The problem is, what do you do about it?

Set a realistic goal.

Total disarmament is unrealistic. But if the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia could be brought down to hundreds, instead of thousands of weapons, we'd all be much better off.

We can make that happen, by demanding that our government makes the following things a priority:

1. Some small, unilateral, token-of-good-faith reduction in arms stockpiles.

2. Combined with making more serious, tit-for-tat arms reduction a diplomatic goal.

This isn't some novel idea. We have done this during the Cold war. We just need to do it, again.

If MAD is not fully effective, ballistic missile defense makes it even less effective (Because it makes your opponent more afraid of you.)

There was a treaty:


Summary: It was okay for each side to have a limited ABM capability but not an extensive one.

Treaty was exited by USA side in 2002 and the stated reason was that ABM-like defense would be needed against "rogue states".

ICBM launches can be detected by satellite. A nuclear powered cruise missile could be launched undetected from anywhere (because of its near unlimited range). It will eventually show up on radar when it gets close enough to the target, but these also have nuclear warheads on them so it doesn't need to get super close to kill a lot of people.

This sort of thing isn't just for Russia to deter the United States. China is their best "frenemy" and this sort of thing helps contain China as well.

How does this detection work? By infrared? Visually looking for the streak of glowing exhaust? Wouldn't the exhaust, even if only superheated air from a (nuclear) scramjet be comparable, at least in infrared? I'd bet the globe is crisscrossed by infrared trails of civil aviation already, for the eyes of such satellites. But doesn't matter, because tagged by ADS-B, or whatever. So benefit is speed to target by avoiding climbing up suborbitally, maneuverability , and not to be as predictable as some oldfashioned ICBM, with its purely ballistic trajectory.

Yes, but at global collateral damage; mutually assured destruction is still a thing at the moment. They can destroy one another but what would they gain? And of course the resulting nuclear winter would cause a mass extinction event.

That said, the Russians in particular get very nervous about the US' missile defense systems and research; after all, if one party has an effective ICBM detection system, the other party's nukes are no longer as threatening and a counterattack may follow.

Including each other? That's the essential bit. Do either side have the capability to respond after a devastating, no warning first strike? That's what the arms race was about. Both sides have such extensive overkill capacity because they are expecting to face off against each other and need to be prepared for only a small fraction of their armament surviving a first strike or capable missile defenses.

It’s madness of the highest order, their could be a huge tragedy at any time, possibly by mistake. We have to work to remove these atrocious weapons.

One of my favourite episodes of Deep Space Nine, "Little Green Men", involved Quark, Nog, and Rom accidentally traveling back in time to 1947 Earth, crash-landing in Roswell, and being captured by the US military. There's a wonderful conversation between the three about nuclear weapons and ultra-cynic Quark of all people being surprised and horrified by the concept.

ROM: I'm working as fast as I can, brother, but there must be some kind of interference disrupting our translators.

QUARK: What kind of interference?

ROM: I'm not sure. Could be solar flares, or maybe ionic interference. Or I suppose it could be beta radiation, but that's only produced by nuclear fission.

QUARK: Don't be an idiot. Nuclear fission doesn't happen within planetary atmospheres.

NOG: It does here. In the twentieth century humans used crude nuclear reactors as weapons. They called them atom bombs. They used to blow them up all the time.

QUARK: They irradiated their own planet?!

ROM: If Nog says so, they did. He knows all about Earth history.

QUARK: You'd better fix those translators fast. The sooner we start talking to these savages, the better off we'll be.

The goal for these weapons is not mutually assured destruction.

Funneling money to the shareholders of companies involved in the production of weapons, of course.

This is about nuclear reactor and not nuclear warhead. Nuclear reactors are used to produce electricity and/or heat and to breed radioactive elements.

If you read the news, it is much more akin to a nuclear engine, not a reactor.

Either powered by actual expensive artificial isotopes with enough activity to power an engine, OR they actually broke the ban and had it running on pu239 (which would also make its fuel reserve a nice yield booster)

Nuclear engine IS a nuclear reactor.


"A nuclear reactor, formerly known as an atomic pile, is a device used to initiate and control a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction."

Nuclear engine is a device used to initate and control a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction.

This is in contrast to nuclear bomb which initiates but does not control the chain reaction. Once the reaction is started nothing else can be done with it (ie. there is no control involved other than setting up initial parameters).

Yes but this missile is intended to be nuclear armed as well. Obviously the test missile won't have a live warhead, but if it makes production these are nuclear weapons.

Even the title says "Russia Says Small Nuclear Reactor Blew Up...".

Because Russia has been so truthful about, well, anything and everything they do? No, it's about a nuclear weapon they've been developing and the "nuclear reactor" bit is just a ruse to confuse people who haven't generally been paying attention to Russia developing new kinds of delivery systems for their nuclear warheads.

This is about a nuclear reactor that was attached to a missile.

Makes one ponder whether russians don't know what they're doing or are others simply better at hiding failures. Scared to think what else is going on that, us, regular people are not aware of. I feel like one of these days some government is going to announce "You didn't ask for it, but we poisoned the environment, ozone layer is gone and water is not fit for drinking, BUT! We have an answer to century long dick measurement contest!"

puts on tin foil hat

Rest assured, it's hard to hide nuclear accidents. There are so many sensors around the world which are owned by various governments and private entities. Any significant radiation leak will be detected and announced.

If you're worried about water contamination, you should focus your concerns on conventional chemicals. Oil drilling, coal mining, and manufacturing waste are the ones causing decades worth of damage.

That’s reassuring if true, do you have evidence to back it up?

If you are asking for open data, then there's radioactive@home (based on BOINC).

But in this case none of the detectors is sensitive enough or sufficiently near the White Sea.


wow, it killed the > “elite of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center,”

>It caused a brief spike in radiation in the nearby port city of Severodvinsk, according to a statement on the local administration’s website that was later removed. The Russian military said radiation levels were normal but disclosed few details about the incident.

News of the explosion set off in nearby cities and towns a run on iodine, which is believed to help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation. Norway said it had stepped up radiation monitoring after the incident but hadn’t detected anything abnormal.

is it really worth this large amount of risk if even the top experts in the field can get it so very wrong

Just a small one


> you all know that someone had to post it

On Reddit perhaps

Sounds like a RTG to me, though the only reason I can think of to put one on the missile itself is if you want to park it in orbit as some sort of first strike weapon

It's a nuclear propelled cruise missile (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9M730_Burevestnik), conceptually similar to SLAM (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supersonic_Low_Altitude_Missil...).

An RTG makes little sense for earth orbit, because there's plentiful sunlight, and solar panels can be used. RTGs are only really suited to missions far away from the sun.

The generic and ambiguous description of the device may have been chosen specifically in the hope that one might think that. If it really was an RTG, there does not seem to be anything to gain by not saying so. Furthermore, an RTG does not seem to be a likely cause of an explosion, though I suppose you could seal one up in a fluid-filled vessel without effective cooling and without a safety valve.

"The war machine springs to life, opens up one eager eye, focusing it on the sky, where 99 red balloons go by."

Never did I think my favorite 80s song would become relevant in my life.

nuclear is dangerous. there are no headlines about solar or wind farms causing deadly accidents like this EDIT: that can impact several cities in a region

Solar and wind make for poor cruise missile propulsion systems.

It's a "bit" of a stretch, but you could consider scramjet as wind powered propulsion :)

sure, but if even the top russian experts die in a test then surely it is not suitable for normal power generation

A cruise missile nuclear jet engine is indeed not suitable for normal power generation.

This statement is such nonsense in so many ways. First of all, comparing all nuclear research to solar and wind for civilian energy use is already bias.

Second of all, people die on wind farms all the time. The death toll for wind farms is far higher then for civilian nuclear power.

Production of solar panels actually involves a whole lot of chemicals and those can leak and kill people. Not to mention that solar panels produce mountains not so nice waste and that people fall to death putting the panels up.

Nuclear power is the safest source of energy if we are going by actual data.

> Nuclear power is the safest source of energy if we are going by actual data.

It's nice to use geothermal energy from a volcano. But there are reasons we don't build more volcanoes.

I think you think you said something smart, while actually you said something very dumb.

In what way?

you are going by the data SO FAR. it still has the potential to wipe out ecosystems continent-wide. you sound like the finance industry in 2006 speaking about MBS

Yes because the past is a great indicator most of the time.

And the idea that civilan nuclear power can 'wipe out the ecosystem continent-wide' is just total and complete nonsense. Please actually inform yourself about the dangers of nuclear power.

Chernobyl was about the most dangerous thing you can produce with that level of enrichmnet. Nothing in the West even comes close. And Fukushima was about the most dangerous thing that can happen with civilian reactor in the West and its not even close to 'wipe out ecosystesms'. In fact nobody died from radation because of Fukushima.

there is no risk to other cities in the region though

Now we're moving the goalposts...

the goalposts has always been the massive continent wide risk that nuclear disaster has

Nuclear has never had that risk. I'm guessing you saw the miniseries Chernobyl? The producers took severe liberties with the source material in some of the more dramatic scenes. It is physically impossible for a reactor meltdown to cause "continent-wide" risks.

lol, you believe what you see on TV? here is a report that clearly states chernobyl had Europe-wide consequences "The Chernobyl fallout had a major impact on both agricultural and natural ecosystems in Belarus,Russia and Ukraine, as well as in many other European countries." http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/58197...

How many solar and wind missiles are there?

they were developing small power sources for example domestic use

The very first four words of the article call it a "failed missile test." Later it says "the blast occurred Aug. 8 during a test of a missile that used “isotope power sources.”"

"Rooftop solar power is actually more dangerous than Chernobyl."


People have an unfortunate tendency to fall off roofs and break their necks when installing solar power panels.

that would be one person, not all the cities in the entire region as would be in danger from a small nuclear reactor malfunction, as in OP

That's not how utilitarian math works, sorry. You want to minimize harm? Calculate how much harm per unit energy is done by a source of power. If you actually do that math, you'll find that nuclear is the SAFEST option out there, despite what you might have been led to believe.

One of the many problems with your reasoning is the scale at which a single nuclear plant provides power, vs a single wind/solar farm.

For the amount of equivalent solar/wind farms required to provide the same amount of power as a single nuclear plant, you most certainly WOULD have much greater impacts than you think.

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