Vladimir Putin addresses Russia's parliament on March 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov

Atmospheric traces of radioactive iodine discovered at several locations in northern Europe earlier this year are lending credence to US reports that a Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile crashed in the Arctic during testing.

ABC and Fox News quoted an unnamed US official on Friday as saying the missile, still in R&D, had crashed during a test in the Arctic at an unspecified date and site, although some experts question if the test really failed. In an annual state-of-the-union address in Moscow, on March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a nuclear-powered cruise missile had been successfully tested in late 2017.

“The range is unlimited. It can maneuver for an unlimited amount of time,” Putin said of the nuclear-powered weapon. “No one in the world has anything similar.” In his address to Russia’s parliament, he also claimed Moscow has developed nuclear-armed underwater drones and next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles that can dodge Western anti-missile shields.

According to a February 26 report in the Independent Barents Observer, Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) found minuscule amounts of radioactive iodine-131 in the air in Kotka, east of Helsinki, in late January. The Finnish government facility detected the same isotope again in late February, in an area north of Kajaani.

“The source could be a nuclear reactor, a facility producing isotopes for medical purposes, or releases from a nuclear weapons-related test,” the Norway-based Observer reported.

The levels of radioactivity were very low, ranging from 0,7 to 1,6 micro-becquerel per cubic meter air, STUK said in a press release. However, the release is believed to be recent, as radioactive iodine-131 is known to have a half-life of only eight days.

Norway’s Radiation Protection Authority has also confirmed that several air-measurement stations detected radioactive iodine in late January – at Skibotn, in northern Norway, and at Svanhovd, in the northeast. Radioactive particles were also reportedly found in air-filters in Estonia.

None of the radiation levels measured in northern Europe were said to raise health concerns.

Russia is also developing nuclear-powered plants, batteries and ship engines for use in Arctic territories and it’s possible that radiation leaked from these sources.

Russian missile exercise

While it can’t be proven that the traces of radioactive iodine are from the Russian test referenced by the US, Moscow is known to have carried out a barrage of missile tests across its Arctic territories in late October.

Scandinavian press reports called it one of the bigger nuclear missile drills in post-Soviet history. The tests ranged from the Barents Sea in Europe to Russia’s Far East and included cruise missiles fired from long-range strategic bombers, as well as ballistic missiles fired from land-based sites and submarines. Russia’s Defense Ministry said all the tests were completed successfully.

Putin gave few details of the new cruise missile during his speech, although he did show a video of a purported test-launch in late 2017. His presentation included an animated sequence that depicted the missile patrolling near the US, the South Atlantic and South America.

“The missile’s test-launch and ground trials make it possible to create a brand-new weapon, a strategic nuclear missile powered by a nuclear engine,” Putin was quoted as saying.

US officials downplayed the weapon’s purported capabilities, saying Washington was aware of the Russian project and had monitored it for some time. The missile is alleged to have crashed repeatedly in testing, including during the Arctic incident last year.

The unidentified US official quoted by American media also stressed that the new missile is not a game changer and that US strategy isn’t focused on creating a missile shield against such threats.

Defense expert Richard Bitzinger believes it’s possible for a small nuclear reactor to power a cruise missile. But he told Asia Times that announcements of such technology by Russia “are probably premature — like hypersonic missiles.” Bitzinger is a senior fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Did Russia’s tests really fail?

Joseph Trevithick, a military researcher and author, notes a US Nuclear Posture Review, which was released last month and details Russian nuclear threats, didn’t mention Putin’s new cruise missile. He says in a March 2 analysis posted on The Drive/War Zone, a Time Inc. website, that the Pentagon has experimented with nuclear-powered ramjets since the 1960s. But the technology was deemed too cumbersome and hazardous from a fallout standpoint for use on missiles. A major hurdle was developing a nuclear power plant small enough to fit on a missile.

Trevithick, at the same time, finds it “curious” that the US has remained silent on the “failed” tests involving the Russian cruise missile — thereby missing a public opportunity to criticize Russia’s technology and attitude toward environmental hazards.

There’s also a chance that Russia’s cruise missile tests succeeded. “It’s worth noting that what the US government has recorded as ‘crashes’ may be flight tests the Russians have deemed successful. Russia would have to test the designs repeatedly in order to prove the design is reliable, especially as testing matures and the prototypes’ flight envelopes expand,” Trevithick wrote.

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