Nenoksa and Chernobyl: Will a New Arms Race Make the Sky Fall in on Mankind?

Parallels have been drawn between a mysterious explosion, on August 8, near the Russian village of Nenoksa, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. The explosion was accompanied by an, albeit brief, spike in radiation levels detected at Severodvinsk, a city of some 180,000 people. This has come at a time when I have been indulging my own personal obsession with Chernobyl, rekindled by the hullabaloo over the HBO series (haven’t seen it). That obsession stems from my own Chernobyl story (I was caught up in Chernobyl, blueberries, cover up and all). Last week, i.e. before August 8, I had wanted to write a post on what I considered to be parallels with today’s situation, a renewed arms race and an out of control nuclear complex, and the increased risk of nuclear accidents. However, work commitments precluded this. Oh, well, what a pity. It would have been a prescient post.

The connection drawn between Nenoksa and Chernobyl is limited to the matter of a cover up, but things are much more wide ranging than this. It is not clear precisely what happened at Nenoksa, given Moscow’s lack of transparency if not outright deception, but there are two dominant theses.

I think the issues germane to any discussion of the wider implications of Nenoksa are very deep ones. They go so far as to encroach on economic growth and democracy themselves. But before we look at this, how about we start by discussing the two theses regarding what happened at Nenoksa.

What Happened?

The first is that the explosion, and radiation spike, was caused by a failed test of Russia’s Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile (SSC-X-9 “Skyfall” US designation). The second is the explosion was the result of a failed test of another, perhaps as yet publicly unknown, system rather than the Burevestnik.

The case for notes that Russia’s previous failed Burevestnik tests (hence “Skyfall”) were conducted at a testing facility at Novaya Zemlya, however that facility has since been closed. A new facility, with the same appearance as the Novaya Zemlya facility so therefore suggesting the same MO, was recently detected through satellite image analysis to have been completed at a military testing facility near Nenoksa. The nuclear fuel transport ship, the Serebryanka was also observed to be in the area, known to be involved in the Burevestnik testing programme, at the time of the explosion and that in a previously designated exclusion zone.  Five people are known to have died, employees of Rosatom Russia’s state owned nuclear corporation, some of whom were from Sarov (Soviet era Arzamas-16) Russia’s premier military nuclear research and design facility. The satellite images and analysis that has enabled the plausible framing of this hypothesis is due to a team of researchers affiliated with the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. One of the researchers, Jeffrey Lewis, has published an article summing up their findings in Foreign Policy.

The evidence provided suggests something suss was up at Nenoksa.

The second thesis holds that the explosion likely was not Burevestnik related, firstly, because it’s unlikely Moscow would have shifted testing of Burevestnik from Novaya Zemlya to a more populated region especially after a series of failures. Furthermore, the official Russian account has emphasised the system in question was a “liquid propellant propulsion system” based on an “isotopic power source.” See also here for another Russian report. Given that Burevestnik is a ramjet nuclear cruise missile, ergo the August 8 incident could not have involved the Burevestnik.  Russian statements have also stated the test was conducted not from land, i.e. from the Nenoksa facility, but from sea off a floating barge. Moreover, the explosion happened after, it’s claimed, a successful test and the explosion itself was of liquid rocket propellants on deck. Russia’s preferred storable liquid rocket propellant is UDMH, which is highly explosive, and was front and centre in the Nedelin catastrophe. The claimed isotopic power source is not consistent with the radiation spike in Severodvinsk, however Russian official claims have always drawn a distinction between propulsion system and power source which, if true, suggests Nenoksa is not relatable to Burevestnik. There is, however, a statement from the Russian Federal Nuclear Centre, part of the Rosatom empire whose employees were killed in the explosion, saying the workers were involved in producing small scale reactors using “radioactive materials, including fissile and radioisotope materials.”

This has widely been interpreted as a direct reference to the involvement of fissile materials, i.e. a reactor, in the events leading to the Nenoksa explosion. Strictly speaking, however, that’s an implication drawn from the remarks rather than a direct admission and should be presented as such (pending further information). If the test was successful (i.e. full system test) then the radiation spike should have been more widespread (a nuclear cruise missile is dirty), but the second thesis holds the spike should have been more widespread regardless. A liquid propelled rocket engine could be used to accelerate the Burevestnik to the required velocity whereupon the nuclear ramjet system takes over. The video of a purported Burevestnik launch from Putin’s infamous March 2018 presidential address suggests so (o.o4sec)

One of the main proponents of the second thesis is Pavel Podvig, the world’s leading nuclear security analyst working in the public domain (which doesn’t mean he’s right). Russian statements have been a bit confusing. Some speak of a liquid propelled jet engine. That doesn’t make sense. Then liquid propelled rocket engine. There’s also been reference to liquid propulsion system. This could be a confused way of trying to deny a failed test of the Poseidon nuclear powered torpedo. Use of “jet,” “liquid propulsion” and assuming a nuclear power source would fit these descriptors. This is very, very speculative however.

I think it’s too early to be definitive here, but the issue seems to boil down to how much veracity one puts on official Russian statements i.e. (a) none or very little hence thesis one or (b) some but not totally hence thesis two. At this stage, if asked, I’d wager money on it being Burevestnik. I hope we get more information on this soon. Thus far both Greenpeace (radiation) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (explosion) have collected data on Nenoksa.

Chernobyl

One thing is clear, a renewed nuclear arms race, one we’re already in and which may escalate further as the last remnants of strategic nuclear arms control are torn asunder, risks more nuclear accidents of the type that characterised the nuclear era. We’d be heading back to what Kate Brown, the author of a superb account of the aftermath of Chernobyl (just read), called “Plutopia.” In the Foreign Policy article linked above on the case for Burevestnik this is the main implication drawn from the Nenoksa incident, and that’s surely correct regardless of which Nenoksa thesis turns out to be true. The article, however, does not include Chernobyl. It should.

At the core of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, whose consequences Brown argues were more far reaching than hitherto popularly believed, was the RBMK-1000 reactor. The RBMK-1000 reactor had a “positive void coefficient” rather than the “negative void coefficient” typical of boiling water reactors and pressurised water reactors. The void coefficient measures the reactivity of a reactor as steam, “voids,” form in the reactor per percentage change in void volume. A positive void coefficient is associated with an increase in reactivity per percentage change in void volume. A positive void coefficient was a feature of the natural uranium, graphite moderated, design of the RBMK-1000. The RBMK-1000 design was, partly, chosen so that it could produce weapons grade plutonium in addition to generating electricity. The reactors of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station, as it turned out, didn’t produce plutonium but the positive void coefficient was at the heart of the accident.

The nuclear arms race of the cold war made Chernobyl possible. It was more than just a result of the “unique” features of Soviet society. What also made Chernobyl possible, related also to the cold war, was the special status, as a symbol of modernity, given to the nuclear complex and the way its interests came to predominate over society. The nuclear complex was out of control, especially during the Brezhnev era. That also was the case in the US during the “cold war bubble” physics enjoyed in America’s version of Plutopia. When you think about the Burevestnik, Russia’s floating nuclear power reactor, the end of the INF treaty, the push for a low yield version of the W76 nuclear warhead, and the end of the JASONs in the interests of a resurgence of plutonium pit production if not of the Reliable Replacement warhead programme, you get a picture where again the nuclear complex is breaking free of social control. This will lead to more nuclear accidents. We should remember that the Chernobyl cover up, the dominant narrative in media accounts of Nenoksa, wasn’t just a Soviet cover up. According to Brown, in her Manual for Survival, political leaders in the West were in on the act especially with reference to the broader effects of Chernobyl on Belarus and Ukraine and the health effects of exposure to low doses of radiation.

The other thing, completely ignored by everyone despite the recent attention given it, is that Chernobyl shows how insane the nuclear strategy doctrines are that underpin such things as the W76-2, RRW and so on. This is the strategy of “intra-war deterrence” otherwise known as “escalate to deescalate.” This is US doctrine, more so than Russian (for now). Here limited nuclear strikes during an acute crisis are treated as a type of signalling or bargaining extending the deterrence relationship even after the threshold from conventional to nuclear war has been crossed. Chernobyl, an accident in one nuclear reactor, stretched the Soviet emergency response system and led to massive consequences for human life. How can anybody seriously contemplate the controlled use of nuclear weapons as a communication tool when only Chernobyl, let alone nuclear exchanges, challenged society’s ability to cope with a nuclear emergency? The zenith of intra-war deterrence thinking was reached in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, and Chernobyl in 1986 showed how insane it was. As I have written here often, the renewed phase in the nuclear arms race is taking us “back to the future” that is back to the 21st century the 1980s promised us bar for Gorbachev and his “new thinking.”

Economic Growth

We might take things deeper still. The new nuclear arms race is often presented in terms of a putative “security dilemma,” much as with the first, touched off by the advent of ballistic missile defence and the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the cornerstone agreement of strategic arms control. That’s doubtless a factor, but this overly simplifies the original arms race and this, seemingly, new one. Technological innovation during the cold war, in both the Soviet Union and the United States, was centred upon the military-industrial complex and that because science and technology, crucial to post war economic growth, subsisted in hierarchical societies (one more authoritarian than the other). The arms race was how both systems socialised the risk and cost necessary for pursuit of basic, fundamental, advances in science and technology hence economic growth.

The interesting thing now is that, a matter that correlates with the neoliberal era, economic growth is relatively anaemic. During the heyday of the cold war, both here and there, trend rates of economic growth were much higher than they have been since 1980. Robert Gordon, in his fascinating and must read The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth, argues were heading for a period of relative economic stagnation what some have dubbed “secular stagnation.” Gordon supposes this because the technological innovations that have transformed modern life, such as the internal combustion engine, can only be invented once.

Vladimir Putin, not just Dmitri Medvedev when President, has stated that Russia must transform the structure of its economy toward high technology industrial production. Commodity based growth makes for fragile and unstable growth, a view widely shared among the Russian political elite. All the talk of advanced cyberwarfare, advanced nuclear reactors, hypersonic warfare, artificial intelligence warfare, is about attempting to achieve new advanced technologies to spur a new wave of productivity growth. That includes new materials technology, new propulsion systems, new aerospace technology, new information technology systems. We are seeing here an attempt to beat back the threat of secular stagnation, while maintaining the traditional hierarchical nature of our societies. Russia, America, and China are trying to achieve a competitive advantage in the technologies of tomorrow. Even reports before the end of the ABM Treaty, such as the Rumsfeld Commission on space policy, argued that the state needs to reinvest heavily in aerospace research and development.

This means that the two greatest threats to the health of human civilisation, the threat of nuclear war and the threat of global warming, are deeply connected. The connection is drawn by economic growth. It is, of course, economic growth through fossil fuel use that has led to the greenhouse effect and it is the desire to establish a new era of economic growth that is leading to a renewed nuclear arms race. If we were to be particle physicists, we would say that the nuclear threat and the climate threat are dual. Indeed, according to Piketty, relatively anaemic economic growth over the medium to long term will lead to levels of economic inequality not seen since Dickensian England. Perhaps we might add that into the mix, while were at it.

Russia

The Nenoksa accident, accompanied by military related accidents near Krasnoyarsk, coupled with the ongoing demonstrations in Moscow have led to renewed discussion about the nature of Putin’s Russia and the future of Russian society. That is appropriate. Vladimir Putin presents ballistic missile defence, NATO expansion, and Western unilateralism, as Russia most acute security threats. All of these are doubtless real matters for concern, to which we return (note global warming doesn’t make Putin’s list). However, Vladimir Putin himself should be on that list. The institutional structure of Russian society continues to be brittle even after some 20 years into Putin’s reign. Politics in Russia remains clan like, with clans linked to oligarchs vying for access to the top. This still is a dominant feature of Russian society. As in the 1980s during the Soviet period, an anti oligarchic mood is spreading through the society. Putin saved Russia from the ravages of the 1990s, when a neoliberal inspired experiment led to a demographic and industrial collapse usually associated with great power war or some similar calamity, yet the case remains that the charismatic leader at the top is key to Russia’s stability. What will happen when Putin departs the scene? A return to the 1990s is a distinct possibility, and that will have devastating consequences, two Panzer armies worth at the least, for Russian society. Then the 1st Guards Tank Army will be useless, much less the Burevestnik.

During the 1990s President Yeltsin, one of history’s more significant traitors, crushed his two main political rivals, his Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, and parliament speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and that through the use of force. Let’s not forget the shelling of the Russian parliament by Yeltsin was enthusiastically supported by the Clinton administration. The opposition to Yeltsin was presented as being “die hard communists” in western public discourse, even though both Rutskoi and Khasbulatov opposed the coup against Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s opposition called for two things. Firstly, a social market economy and, secondly, a parliamentary democracy. How different Russia would be today if such ideas constituted Russian political and economic life. One thing that would be different is that Russia would be a more democratic society, and one based on more stable and representative institutions. We would not have had the privatisations of the 1990s, robbery on a grand scale and nor the oligarchs. That alternative was foreclosed by Yeltsin’s tanks, and it is the constitution that he drew up creating an imperial presidency through which Putin rules. We must remember that the foreclosing of this alternative was deeply supported by the West, and the petty bourgeoisie of Moscow and St Petersburg, which preferred a continuation of the diabolical neoliberal experiment and a Russia reduced to its knees. The West doesn’t like Putin, not unlike Boris Berezovsky, because, it so turned out, Putin doesn’t follow orders unless from Yuri Andropov.

The current demonstrations have attracted the support of western politicians, analysts and commentators. Those expressions of support are insincere. As during the 1990s they are reflective of a desire to take advantage of whatever turmoil exists in Russian society to advance the geopolitical interests of the West. A genuine supporter of Russia’s courageous protest movements, rather, would offer a hand of support by declaring that, to follow Gorbachev, Europe is “our common home.” A genuine supporter of Russia’s protests would not regard Russia an alien civilisation to be forever excluded from a common European architecture unless it comes begging on hands and knees. That means foreclosing NATO expansion, indeed ridding Europe of this millstone around its neck, and allowing Russia to reach its own social arrangements free of outside interference. If you reject this, as most do, then the only Russia you like is the supplicant of the 1990s. The Russia you will eventually get, after another repeat of the 1990s, will be Putin’s Russia redux only if you’re lucky. More likely would be a fascist Russia, a fascist Russia armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

It is only appropriate that an analysis of the possible role of the Burevestnik in the August 8 explosion should take us here. The Stormy Petrel (“Burevestnik”) is a beautiful bird. Before the Burevestnik was either a nuclear cruise missile or a Bolshevik newspaper, it was a Russian anarchist paper.  Global warming and the new phase of the nuclear arms race are intimately linked for in their union we discern the key task befalling civilisation. It is nothing less than finding, and bringing into being, the appropriate social form conversant with the continued economic, social, scientific, and technological progress of mankind.

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