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U.S. Experts Want Details On Blast At Russian Missile Test Site


American scientists and intelligence experts are trying to understand what happened in an explosion at a Russian missile test site last week. At least five Russians died in that blast. It's believed to have involved an experimental nuclear-powered missile that Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about last year. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Russian officials have been vague about what caused a spike in background radiation in the area surrounding last Thursday's explosion.

ANKIT PANDA: What we do have is an acknowledgement by the Russians that there was radioactive dispersal.

WELNA: Ankit Panda is an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

PANDA: Official data released by the Russian government regarding the personnel that were tragically killed in this accident suggests that they were involved with a part of the Russian defense establishment that was known to have been working on this nuclear-powered cruise missile.

JEFFREY LEWIS: I think Russia was testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile, which is a crazy kind of doomsday weapon and one that seems to have gone rather badly.

WELNA: That's Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. He says all signs suggest this blast involved a new kind of missile.

LEWIS: That doesn't just have a nuclear warhead but in fact has a tiny nuclear reactor on board. That's a pretty finicky technology. The United States looked at doing that in the 1950s and '60s but gave up because it was a technical and ecological nightmare.

WELNA: President Trump weighed in earlier this week, tweeting that, quote, "the United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia." He also said the U.S. has, in his words, similar though more advanced technology. This my missile is better than your missile one-upmanship got started last year by Trump's Russian counterpart.




WELNA: In a televised address, Russian President Putin told his Federal Assembly that a new nuclear-powered, low-flying stealth missile with a nuclear warhead had been successfully tested.


VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

WELNA: Putin claimed no present or future defense system could stop this missile that had virtually no limit on how far it could fly. Putin showed a video simulation of the missile heading toward what looked like the coast of Florida.


PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

WELNA: No other country, he added, has developed anything like this.

PANDA: There is an element of deception in many activities that Russia does undertake around its weapons programs.

WELNA: Still, Ankit Panda things Russia really is trying to fly a missile with a nuclear reactor on board.

PANDA: This may have been something brought out of the archives. Somebody managed to convince the Russian leadership that this was a good idea, but it may not be going anywhere.

WELNA: The Russians, though, appear anything but deterred by this mishap, says Lewis.

LEWIS: The Russians were quite clear that they were going to press on. All of the Russian statements took a very cold tone of saying this is the kind of thing that happens when a country is developing new military technologies.

WELNA: Lewis notes that this follows the termination earlier this month of the long-standing intermediate range missile treaty between the U.S. and Russia.

LEWIS: What we have seen is a complete collapse of arms control efforts between the United States and Russia. And in its place is a kind of arms race. And this weapons system, crazy as it sounds, I think is part of that brewing arms race.

WELNA: One expert on Russia, the International Crisis Group's Olga Oliker, thinks Moscow might simply be trying to lure the U.S. back to the negotiating table.

OLGA OLIKER: You know, maybe not all of this stuff would need to be built. Maybe there's a negotiation to have here.

WELNA: But there are no signs Washington's moved any closer to the negotiating table, particularly after last week's blast. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.