Nearly 36 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, Europe could again be on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe, with its largest nuclear plant coming under repeated attacks.
The Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, almost twice the size of Chernobyl, was shelled on August 8, raising an international alarm. It was unclear who attacked the power plant, as Russia and Ukraine have leveled accusations against each other.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian artillery struck the plant, damaging a high-voltage power line that served the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.
Whereas Ukraine’s national energy company, Energoatom, has said that the Russian attacks on the power plant have damaged several buildings, put one reactor offline, and increased the risk of radiation leaks and fires.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged that the international inspectors be given access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
“Any attack on a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing,” said Guterres on July 8 in Tokyo, on the occasion of a ceremony in Hiroshima, commemorating the 77th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing.
Concerns Of Nuclear Disaster Misplaced?
According to experts, these attacks warrant concerns but would not likely result in a full-blown nuclear disaster.
“As such, I do not believe there would be a high probability of a breach of the containment building, even if an explosive shell accidentally struck it, and even less likely the reactor itself could be damaged,” said Mark Wenman, a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Nuclear Materials and Department of Materials at Imperial College, London.
Wenman also noted that the complex’s spent fuel tanks, where the shells reportedly hit, are strong and probably don’t contain much-spent fuel.
“Although it may seem worrying, and any fighting on a nuclear site would be illegal according to international law, the likelihood of a serious nuclear release is still small,” Wenman said.
However, this does not mean that the risk of nuclear disaster does not exist; perhaps the fears are misplaced.
The next nuclear disaster may not necessarily come from powerplants like Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhia, etc. but instead from Russia’s Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, also described as ‘Flying Chernobyl’ by some Western experts.
Burevestnik Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missile
The Burevestnik cruise missile is one of Russia’s six strategic weapons, also known as ‘Super Weapons’ that Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled during a speech in 2018 at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall near the Kremlin.
Other super weapons include the Sarmat Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), Avangard Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV), and the Poseidon nuclear-armed underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV), the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missile, and the Tsirkon ship-launched hypersonic missile.
Not much is known about the Burevestnik missile, as it is shrouded in mystery, but there are a host of speculations about it.
According to Alexander Sharkovsky of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the missile’s length is 12 meters at launch and 9 meters in flight. The nose has the shape of an ellipse, 1-meter × 1.5-meters in size.
Sharkovsky stateD that Burevestnik is a nuclear thermal rocket with a solid-fueled booster engine; presumably, its warhead is a high-yield thermonuclear charge.
While Pavel Ivanov from VPK-news suggests that Burevestnik is one and a half to two times larger than the Kh-101, and unlike the latter, its wings are located not at the bottom but at the top of the fuselage.
Ivanov further states that considering it carries a nuclear reactor onboard, the missile must weigh several times greater than the Kh-101, thereby ruling out the Tu-160 or Tu-95MS as missile carriers for Burevestnik and suggesting the possibility of deployment on ships.
Reports have also indicated that ground-based Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) vehicles, such as MZKT-7930 unique wheeled chassis with 8×8 configuration, are carriers for this missile.
While conventional cruise missiles are limited in range, nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missiles can travel unlimited distances.
Also, in conventional cruise missiles, there are certain design compromises. For example, it is difficult to achieve both high-speed and low-observability simultaneously in a conventional missile because, for high-speed, a missile must carry a lot of fuel, making it larger and therefore easier to detect for enemy air defense radars.
On the other hand, if a missile is to avoid detection by radar, compromises must be made with its fuel, warhead size, and weight. It results in a slower missile, low range, and is not very lethal.
However, a nuclear-powered missile can be small in size to avoid detection while at the same time being very fast with unlimited endurance.
Also, unlimited range enables the missile to evade the enemy air defense systems by not following predictable trajectories. The missile has an endless ability to alter its course and strike the enemy from any direction to make the strike successful.
Dangers Of Burevestnik Missile
While the operational characteristics of the Burevestnik cruise missile are certainly a concern for Russia’s adversaries, there are also concerns about this missile’s environmental and ecological impact because of the miniaturized nuclear power plant that propels the missile.
According to US intelligence, there were several flight tests of Burevestnik between 2017 and 2019, but all were failures.
After another failed launch test in 2019, one of these nuclear-powered missiles ended up in the White Sea. During the recovery attempt, the missile exploded, killing at least seven specialists and causing a radiation leak.
The risks of a radiation leak would increase even further when the missile is airborne, traveling at high speeds. The nuclear reactor will be exposed to high pressure and temperature during supersonic flight, while the reactor will operate at extremely high temperatures.
There is also a possibility that other aircraft flying along the missile’s flight could be exposed to the radioactive fallout of the missile.
The US had also tried to develop its own nuclear-powered Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM) in the 1950s. Eventually, the US abandoned the project due to the dangers surrounding the tests of these missiles.
While the exact status of the Burevestnik’s progress is not known, reported claims from Russian sources indicate that this missile could become operational around 2025.