Nearly 36 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, Europe could once again be on the brink of nuclear disaster, with its biggest nuclear power plant coming under repeated attack.
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Ukraine’s Russian-owned Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is almost twice the size of Chernobyl, was bombed on August 8, triggering an international alert. It is unclear who attacked the power plant, as Russia and Ukraine blamed each other.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian artillery hit the plant, damaging a high-voltage power line that served the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.
While Ukraine’s national energy company, Energoatom, said Russian attacks on the power plant damaged several buildings, knocked out a reactor and increased the risk of radioactive leaks and fires.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged that international inspectors be given access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
“Any attack on a nuclear power plant is a suicidal thing,” Guterres said July 8 in Tokyo at a ceremony in Hiroshima commemorating the 77th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing.
Misplaced nuclear disaster concerns?
According to experts, these attacks warrant concern but would probably not lead to a full-fledged nuclear disaster.
“As such, I do not believe there would be a high probability of a breach in the containment building, even if an explosive shell were to accidentally hit it, let alone that the reactor itself could be damaged” , said Mark Wenman, Senior Lecturer in the Nuclear Materials Center and Department of Materials at Imperial College London.
Wenman also noted that the complex’s spent fuel tanks, where the shells would have been hit, are solid and probably do not contain much spent fuel.
“While this may sound ominous, and any combat at a nuclear site is illegal under international law, the likelihood of a serious nuclear release is still low,” Wenman said.
However, this does not mean that the risk of nuclear catastrophe does not exist; perhaps the fears are misplaced.
The next nuclear disaster may not necessarily come from power plants like Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhia, etc., but rather from the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile Burevestnik, 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’, which Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled during a 2018 speech at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall near the Kremlin.
Other superweapons include the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Avangard hypersonic gliding vehicle (HGV) and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) Poseidon, the Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched missile and the Tsirkon hypersonic missile ship.
Not much is known about the Burevestnik missile, as it is shrouded in mystery, but there is a wealth of speculation about it.
According to Alexander Sharkovsky of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the missile length measures 12 meters at launch and 9 meters in flight. The nose has the shape of an ellipse of 1 meter × 1.5 meters.
Sharkovsky stated that Burevestnik is a nuclear thermal rocket with a solid fuel 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 on board, the missile must weigh several times more than the Kh-101, thus 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 Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) ground vehicles, such as the MZKT-7930 single-wheeled chassis with an 8×8 configuration, carry this missile.
While conventional cruise missiles have a limited range, nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missiles can travel unlimited distances.
In addition, in conventional cruise missiles there are certain design compromise. For example, it is difficult to achieve high speed and low observability simultaneously in a conventional missile because, for high speed, a missile must carry a lot of fuel, which makes it larger and therefore easier to detect for enemy air defense radars. .
On the other hand, if a missile is to avoid radar detection, compromises must be made with its fuel, warhead size, and weight. This results in a slower, short-range, low-lethal missile.
However, a nuclear-powered missile can be small in size to avoid detection while being very fast with unlimited endurance.
Additionally, the unlimited range allows the missile to evade enemy air defense systems by not following predictable trajectories. The missile has an infinite ability to alter its trajectory and hit the enemy from any direction to achieve a successful strike.
Dangers of the Burevestnik missile
While the operational characteristics of the Burevestnik cruise missile certainly concern Russia’s adversaries, the environmental and ecological impact of this missile also raises concerns due to the miniaturized nuclear power plant that powers the missile.
According to US intelligence, there was several flight tests of Burevestnik between 2017 and 2019, but all of them 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 chances of a radiation leak would increase even more when the missile is in flight, moving at high speed. The nuclear reactor will be exposed to high pressure and temperature during supersonic flight, while the reactor will operate at extremely high temperatures.
It is also possible that other aircraft flying along the missile’s flight may be exposed to radioactive fallout from the missile.
The United States had also attempted to develop its own nuclear-powered Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM) in the 1950s. Eventually, the United States abandoned the project due to the dangers surrounding testing such missiles.
Although the exact status of the Burevestnik’s progress is not known, statements from Russian sources indicate that this missile could become operational around 2025.