Opinion by “Icarus”, Principal Consultant Systems Engineer at Optima Systems Consultancy.
The latest nuclear-powered cruise missile explosion in Russia on the 8th August have produced many speculative news coverage in the media, like this article on BBC Technology Watch.
Nuclear-powered missiles the Burevestnik crusie missile and nuclear-powered torpedoes such as Poseidon are not new concepts. Walt Disney even did a publicity video about nuclear powered rockets in the 1950s/60s, but the concern in the West has always been with accidents and contamination. One has to think over the entire life cycle from Concept to Disposal including test, trials, and maintenance, and over all the Defence Lines of Development (DLODs) including infrastructure. There is a fundamental difference here between nuclear-armed versus nuclear-propelled systems, because the nuclear-propelled aspect needs testing in more real-world conditions than the warheads, particularly for cruise missiles and torpedoes, which arguably have a more complex propelled-flight environment than ballistic missiles. There is also a fundamental difference between a nuclear powered submarine/aircraft carrier and a nuclear powered missile or torpedo, and that difference is simply available volume for placing all the safety features within the system.
Hopefully the leak is as small as Russia says. Another of the DLODs, beloved of us Systems Engineers, is the Information DLOD. Unfortunately I remember my brother and I were camping in Wales in April 1986, when the events of Chernobyl were unfolding, with the Soviets revealing information somewhat slowly. Sheep in that area were still failing radiation tests ten years after Chernobyl.
Our sympathies to the dead and injured and their families, and let us hope it leads to lessons learnt on all sides (not just “lessons identified…”).