A mystery developed several days ago when what appeared to be an accident at a military base in Northern Russia, perhaps involving an advanced cruise missile test, caused a spike in radiation in a nearby town. Reuters published the original story.

“Two people were killed and a nearby city reported a rise in radiation levels when a rocket engine blew up at a testing site in northern Russia on Thursday, forcing authorities to shut down part of a bay in the White Sea to shipping.”

“The brief spike in radiation was reported by authorities in the nearby city of Severodvinsk, which has a population of 185,000. This apparently contradicted the defense ministry, which was quoted earlier by state media as saying radiation was normal.”

“RIA news agency quoted the defense ministry as saying no dangerous substances had been released into the atmosphere by the explosion of what it called a liquid-propellant rocket engine in the Arkhangelsk region. In addition to the two deaths, it said six people were injured in the blast.”

However, the accident turned out to be something that was far more serious. Soon after the initial reports, Russian officials admitted that the explosion resulted in a cloud of radioactive materials.

At one point inhabitants of a nearby village called Nynoska were advised to evacuate, though Russian officials claimed that the evacuation had nothing to do with the explosion and radiation threat. However, Igor Orlov, the governor of the Arkhangelsk region, claimed that the evacuation order was “nonsense.” Social media, as it tends to do, merely added to the confusion.

Gizmodo offered the view of American intelligence, via the New York Times.

“U.S. intelligence officials have stated they believe the explosion may have been associated with a prototype weapon know by NATO as SSC-X-9 Skyfall. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in March 2018 the nation was developing this cruising missile, which could potentially take a nuclear weapon to any point on the planet, as it is powered in part by a nuclear reactor. Putin also said the missile will eventually be able to evade U.S. missile defense systems.”

CNN reported that the Kremlin is downplaying the severity of the accident and boasted that it was forging ahead of its advanced weapons programs. However, anything that comes out of the country that caused the Chernobyl disaster has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Indeed, the accident and the Russian government reaction calls to mind the 1986 disaster in which a nuclear reactor exploded and contaminated a good section of Ukraine with deadly radiation. The Chernobyl disaster contributed significantly to the fall of the Soviet Union.

American intelligence has known for a while that the Russians have been working on a nuclear-propelled cruise missile. According to Popular Mechanics, the project harkens back to some of the crazy ideas from the Cold War. The United States worked on a similar weapons system in the early 1960s called Project Pluto.

The project envisioned a rocket that could travel at low altitudes for days at Mach 3.5, dropping hydrogen bombs along its flight path. Besides the fact that ICBMs with multiple warheads proved to be a more sensible (if such could be called) way to wage a nuclear war, there was no way to test the Pluto weapons system without spewing radiation across a wide area.

Skyfall seems to be a simpler idea. It could fly for days, evading American ABM systems, before dropping its warhead on its target. “Russia could launch cruise missiles from the Asian mainland, program them to cross the Pacific, go around South America, and penetrate U.S. airspace from the Gulf of Mexico. Superlong, previously impossible flight paths would become a reality.”

With the United States upgrading its missile defenses, even contemplating a revival of space-based systems that were once envisioned during the Reagan-era SDI system, such a weapon would prove very attractive to Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin.

Russia’s latest nuclear accident, according to various analysts, has two root causes. The first is Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s desire to restore the glory of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the USSR, which most of the rest of the world regards as a positive development, Putin regards as an existential tragedy.

He is determined to reverse that development, even to the extent of pursuing mad schemes such as a nuclear rocket that flies in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The other development is a marked deterioration of Russian technical expertise and quality control. That fact was illustrated last year when a Soyuz rocket malfunctioned on launch, causing a crew that included Americans on their way to the International Space Station to have to abort. Accidents involving anything nuclear are far more serious, however, and bears watching.