Mystery Russia Explosion Reportedly Happened During Mission to Recover Nuclear-Powered Missile from Ocean

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin demonstrated his vision for a nuclear-powered cruise missile at his annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation in March 2018
Photo: Marat Abulkhatin (TASS/Getty)

U.S. intelligence has reportedly determined that a mysterious blast that occurred on Russia’s northern coast earlier this month took place during a mission to reclaim a nuclear-powered missile.

Last week Russia signaled that it had no interest in shedding light on the August 8 explosion that killed at least five people. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, which monitors radiation globally, that Russia would not be sharing any data about the incident.

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The Russian defense ministry originally said the fatal explosion occurred during the testing of a liquid-propulsion system, but reports that a nearby city detected a rise in radiation levels clashed with the nation’s suggestion that it wasn’t a nuclear blast

CNBC reported on Thursday that U.S. intel has learned that the explosion also didn’t happen during a test. A person with direct knowledge of the U.S. intelligence reportedly told CNBC, “this was not a new launch of the weapon, instead it was a recovery mission to salvage a lost missile from a previous test.”

Another anonymous source told CNBC that an explosion that happened on one of the vessels used in the recovery mission “caused a reaction in the missile’s nuclear core which lead to the radiation leak.”

The Russian-language division of the U.S.-funded news outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty analyzed photos taken at the scene of the incident that apparently showed nuclear waste containers designed to bring up sunken objects from the sea floor, which could help corroborate the CNBC report.

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U.S. intelligence officials have said they think the blast was associated with a prototype for a weapon Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about developing last year—a cruising missile powered by a nuclear reactor, which would allow it to strike anywhere on the planet. NATO refers to the weapon as the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.

CNBC reported last year of a similar such recovery operation, when Russia attempted to salvage a nuclear-powered missile that was lost in the Barents Sea following a failed test.

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Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo