Russian Nuclear Explosion: What Happened to the Five Nuclear Engineers?

A woman holds roses as she and others gather for the funerals of five Russian nuclear engineers killed by a rocket explosion in Sarov, the closed city which has served as a base for Moscow's nuclear weapons program since the late 1940s. (Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM via AP)

Written by Arnie Gundersen

News media around the world has exhaustively discussed the fact that some sort of nuclear explosion occurred in northern Russia that killed at least seven people and contaminated nearby towns and beaches. Many of Fairewinds Energy Education readers, friends, and colleagues have been contacting Fairewinds via email and social media asking us what really happened in Russia. 

Let’s talk about the military explosion in Russia.

As we say here at Fairewinds, “Radiation Knows No Borders”.  


Radioactive remnants from the Nyonoksa military testing site explosion, which happens to be close to the populous Russian city of Severodvinsk, have been identified in several nearby countries. To be honest, the world may never know the full impact of the explosion that killed five nuclear engineers and at least two Russian military personnel, but there is enough information for Fairewinds and its colleagues to develop a working hypothesis about what may have occurred.

First, what we do know is that this was a Russian military weapon that appears to have been powered by a nuclear reactor – and that reactor would weigh a fair amount. For the Russians to derive the most power possible out of a small atomic reactor, it is likely that the reactor used highly enriched uranium. To reduce weight,  according to Dr. Marco Kaltofen of WPI, the reactor, likely had no radiation shielding, and it was designed to turn itself on after it was launched by the team using a normal chemically powered rocket. The Russian government claims that this missile/torpedo did not have an atomic reactor, but rather an “isotopic power source.” However, radiation detected in Norway clearly shows a nuclear reactor was the power source due to the release of radioactive iodine and other radioactive isotopes.

Second, my colleagues and I believe the Russians were testing either a nuclear-powered cruise missile or a nuclear-powered torpedo when the test failed the missile/torpedo sunk into the sea near the Russian coast as shown in the image below. 

Satellite photo of Nenoksa area of Russia. (Wikipedia)

The fact that recovery vessels were identified by satellite photos suggests that the failure occurred at an earlier point in time, perhaps even days earlier, and that the Russians were using recovery vessels in an attempt to reclaim their failed missile/torpedo experiment.

Third, after the nuclear-powered weapon was removed from the water, at least five nuclear engineers were working on the damaged reactor, when something went wrong and a powerful short-term power surge occurred. This power surge was huge but was not a bomb-type explosion. Likely, the Russian scientists inadvertently created what nuclear engineers term a prompt, moderated nuclear criticality.

prompt, moderated criticality is a technical term for an out of control nuclear chain reaction that rapidly increases from ‘prompt’ neutrons emitted as a uranium atom splits as opposed to the ‘delayed’ neutrons that normally control the nuclear chain reaction. This prompt, moderated criticality also releases lethal amounts of gamma rays and neutrons to any nearby personnel.

Back in 1961 this type of inadvertent prompt, moderated criticality killed three American servicemen at the SL-1 test-reactor in Idaho. One of the servicemen was impaled to the roof of the reactor building by a flying piece of metal. While the blast and steam explosion killed the three American servicemen immediately, they would have died due to radiation exposure and were therefore were buried in lead coffins.

Other prompt moderated criticalities where known to scientists back in the 1950’s and indeed were tested in what was called the BORAX Experiment in Idaho in 1955.  An excellent US government video shows the huge power spike deliberately created by scientists at the 13:45 mark in this BORAX video. No one was standing near the BORAX reactors during this test, and you will see hot pieces of burning nuclear fuel and the reactor control rods flying away from the reactor in the film. The film itself was also damaged by the high radiation levels.

In a similar fashion to the SL-1 nuclear catastrophe, the blast of steam did kill most of the Russians involved in the recovery of their missile/torpedo. However, Fairewinds is led to believe that their deaths were inevitable due to the radiation spike from a prompt, moderated nuclear criticality in the highly enriched nuclear reactor powering the Russian cruise missile/torpedo. Indeed, press reports now confirm that at least two people made it to the hospital alive but succumbed to radiation-related injuries, according to The Columbian.

As always, Fairewinds Energy Education will keep you informed!