On July 7th 2020 the 500 inhabitants of Nenoksa (Nyonoksa), a village in northern Russia, were given the option of boarding government supplied busses to be moved from their village for 36 hours while a missile test was conducted at the test facility two kilometers (1.25 miles) away. Port authorities at nearby Archangel (Arkhangelsk) warned ships to stay away, between July 6 and July 10, from a large area of the White Sea near the Nenoksa test site. It is not known if the test actually took place but there were no reports of injuries, deaths or radiation as was the case during a similar test a year earlier.
On August 9, 2019, in the White Sea near Nenoksa there was an accidental explosion involving the new, experimental 9M730 Burevestnik (SSC-X-9 NATO ID) “Skyfall” cruise missile. It was later revealed that five technical personnel died, and Russia admitted that Skyfall used a nuclear-powered engine. Initially it was thought that the explosion occurred while trying to recover a Skyfall missile that had gone down in coastal waters during an earlier test. That theory assumed the missile exploded on August 8th after it had been found and taken out of the water and onto a salvage ship. Technical personnel were seeking to safely remove and store the nuclear power supply. Something went wrong and five people died in the explosion and several more got large doses of radiation. Russia never provided any details of the incident, only that five scientists had died while doing something with a Skyfall missile.
In the nearby port city of Severodvinsk, radiation detection systems showed a spike in radiation. Medications (iodine tablets) were suddenly in great demand. The Russian government said there was no problem but then ordered that radiation monitoring data was unavailable in the area for a while. Before that Russia shared its radiation readings with neighboring countries. Now that was temporarily “suspended” right after a nuclear accident off the coast. Other countries in the region did not show sustained high radiation levels but would still like to know what is going on.
At the center of all this is a new Russian superweapon. Skyfall is a 12 meter (39 foot) long missile that uses a rocket booster to attain high enough speed so the nuclear-powered engine can take over. The missile is nine meters long after jettisoning the booster rocket. The missile cross section is elliptical (one by 1.5 meters). Using the nuclear power Skyfall could reach anywhere on the planet. Space based sensors could detect it and the missile could be destroyed by an anti-aircraft missile (fired from the air or the surface). This is a prestige project for Russia and not meant to be built in large numbers. Such projects do require one or two successful test flights to prove that the weapon is real and not just theoretical.
Skyfall was using a type of nuclear power that is often used in space satellites and, while dangerous, the radiation released is not long-lasting or plentiful. But the spike in radioactivity was noted next door in Norway and Russia was once more accused of trying to cover up the details of the accident, as they had so infamously done in 1986 during the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
At first, it was reported that the nuclear-contaminated Skyfall explosion had killed two and wounded at least six, but later it was revealed that dozens of people nearby were treated for low-level radiation exposure and that a lot more people were killed. Some civilians were evacuated, and it took several months for more details to emerge because the nuclear propulsion tech in the missile is top secret even though the basic concepts and applications are decades old. The Russians were the heaviest users of this tech, often using it to power remote, unmanned communications facilities in areas like Krasnoyarsk, the Far East and Central Asia. After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the location of many of these remote nuclear-powered facilities was lost (or simply forgotten). Some were later stumbled upon by locals who were unaware of the danger and came down with radiation sickness which caused a local panic and investigations that revealed the existence of the “lost” nuclear power sources. Some of these were in new nations that were created when the Soviet Union came apart so it was an embarrassing international incident for the Russians. The Soviet Union considered the nuclear power sources top secret and when portions of the Soviet Union became independent a lot top secret information was not part of the deal. This even included Chernobyl, which is in northern Ukraine, near the Russian border. Chernobyl was one reason Ukrainians insisted on leaving the Soviet Union in 1991, even if it meant inheriting the Chernobyl mess. The Skyfall project indicates that the Russians did not absorb all the lessons of Chernobyl.