The explosion at a secret Russian test site that killed five nuclear scientists and spread radioactive contamination to surrounding communities may come from a technology pioneered at the Idaho National Laboratory in the 1950s.
Or maybe not. The details remain shrouded in a combination of lies, secrecy and mystery.
What we do know is the United States abandoned the entire idea of nuclear-powered airplanes and missiles after thoughtful people asked, “What happens if it crashes?”
The story of the Russian explosion Aug. 8 came out in dribs and drabs with reports of the five deaths, the injuries of others but no radiation releases. Then a nearby city in the Arkhangelsk region on the White Sea reported elevated radiation levels.
Nuclear observers and experts suggested the explosion may have come from the testing of a nuclear reactor-powered cruise missile that Russian President Vladimir Putin said they had developed March 1. The missile was designed on a concept first proven at the Idaho lab in the 1950s, a nuclear-powered ramjet engine.
But on Aug. 13, Russia’s state-controlled nuclear energy corporation Rosatom said the accident occurred testing “a liquid propulsion system involving isotopes.” On Thursday, the Russian newspaper Izvestia said authorities had been testing an advanced booster device featuring a liquid propellant rocket engine mounted with “nuclear batteries.” It also denied the explosion was tied to Putin’s nuclear-powered cruise missile.
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, in an interview in Scientific American after Putin’s announcement, compared the supposed new Russian cruise missile to Project Pluto, a project that followed the Idaho nuclear-powered airplane program in the 1950s and ‘60s. The program developed a nuclear-powered ramjet engine that was to have powered a cruise missile that would run around the world continuously until it was called on to attack targets.
In both the Idaho airplane program and Project Pluto, the nuclear reactor would heat air to a very high temperature then push it out the back to propel them. The problem is that radioactive fission products and particles were expelled with the air. In Idaho, these releases were mostly kept within the boundaries of the 890-square-mile test site.
The mix of engineering and Cold War hysteria kept the program alive. The problems associated with the program were protecting the pilots with shields without too much weight, the spread of nuclear material worldwide and, of course, the problem with crashes.
But the Air Force was confident enough to build a hardened giant airplane hangar on the Arco desert to house this future nuclear airplane, and Congress funded it without question. The engines were run for hundreds of hours over the course of the project, spewing contamination across the desolate desert.
But these were different times. The United States was still doing atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, spreading radioactive fallout across the West and beyond. The Idaho lab was developing nuclear reactors with safety tests that included blowing up reactors on purpose.
Ray Haroldsen, an Argonne National Laboratory engineer, described to me one of these tests in the early 1990s. The reactor blew up in a steam explosion, sending its control rod shooting high up in the air before landing. They recovered the rod and used it in the next reactor.
The airplane engines themselves had several “excursions” as nuclear engineers liked to call them, where portions of the fuel melted down, releasing higher levels of radiation.
The nuclear airplane program ended in 1961 after newly elected President John F. Kennedy was briefed and he realized its folly. Project Pluto continued, in part, because the shielding issue was eliminated; there was no pilot for the cruise missile.
But that still left the concept of flying nuclear reactor circling the globe, spewing radioactive material with the possibility of a crash. It finally ended in 1966 after two open air engine tests at the Nevada Test Site. Eventually the engine was buried at the Idaho waste site only a couple of miles from where the nuclear airplane engines sit today at the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 museum east of Arco.
“My guess is they just realized the engineering didn’t add up,” Lyman said.
When I spoke to Lyman on Thursday, he was uncertain whether the explosion was tied to Putin’s supposed nuclear-powered cruise missile. The reports from the Russian energy agency and in the pro-Kremlin press denied such a connection. Those reports pointed to some other propulsion technology that used nuclear batteries, which would heat up some chemical like hydrogen to provide thrust.
Whatever is true, the secrecy and deception that came out initially after the accident has undercut whatever credibility the Putin government had and the propaganda value a nuclear-powered cruise missile may have carried.
I asked the Idaho National Laboratory to provide some scientists or engineers to talk about the Russian accident and possible connections to the program started in Idaho. They didn’t want to bite.
“That is not something we want to comment on because there is not enough information,” said INL spokeswoman Sarah Neumann.
So much of went on at the Idaho lab in the 1950s and ‘60s was classified, so the public and even the workers were not told the true risks of the work that was going on. I had Department of Energy officials acknowledging those secret risks in the 1980s, but they justified them because of the Cold War.
“If you are operating in this secret, privileged isolation, this is what happens, said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Alvarez is a former Energy Department deputy assistant secretary who helped get a compensation program for nuclear workers passed. Haroldsen, 90, is one of many retired INL employees who has received compensation, though his was for asbestos inhalation.
These are the lessons we learned over the past 74 years this month since nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan. It appears the Russians still have a lot to learn.
“The U.S. was right to abandon those kinds of systems, and it would be foolhardy for any country to take them up,” Lyman said.