We have new Russian missiles. President Vladimir Putin announced on March 6 that his country had developed important new weapons. One is an underwater drone that could secretly navigate anywhere, the other two long-range nuclear missiles. The idea is that these weapons render useless the anti-missile shield of NATO and the United States, so criticized by Russia. What he did not count is that the most spectacular missile, one capable of flying at hypersonic speed and with nuclear propulsion of unlimited range, would be a tremendously polluting and dirty weapon . Because its nuclear propulsion is something that others had tested and discarded for this reason. It's so bad that it would almost do more damage in the areas it flew over than in its target where the atomic head detonated ...
Nevada, USA, 1960s
In 1957 the United States commissioned the Pluto project from its air force, then responsible for the missile and rocket program. The goal of this program was to develop nuclear-powered rocket engines . They would use them in low altitude supersonic flight missiles (SLAM or Supersonic Low Altitude Missiles). The Pentagon even tested prototypes of 500 MW reactors at secret facilities in the Nevada desert between 1961 and 1964.
But the project was rejected because it was too polluting and dangerous . To get an idea of what that means, a scientist from a group concerned about global security problems has described in Scientific American how the American Pluto Project was carried and its parallels with Putin's new nuclear missile.
From the outset, the American missile was going to use an atomic pulse jet. It is a fairly simple engine. A tube through which supersonic air enters and is heated in contact with fission atomic material. Then it is accelerated by the expansion generating a large net thrust. With very little fuel, it could spend a long time flying at high speed, evading defenses until it reaches the target.
A flying hazard
You review the description of the reactor. You will see that the air comes into contact with the nuclear fission material before returning to the atmosphere. There is nothing remotely as polluting as that, because the missile would not have protections (concrete or lead) due to its lightness. In flight this missile would be a source of neutrons, radioactive particles and fission products . A kind of super Chernobyl, but flying in the open for thousands of kilometers.
Russian missiles would surely carry one or more warheads and would obviously do a lot of damage to their ultimate target. But, along the way, they would sow death in the short and long term. The American Air Force had a working reactor. But they canceled the project at a fairly early stage because of this. Let's think it was the 1960s, in the middle of the cold war. The military did not hesitate to do nuclear tests in the sea or the desert and there was hardly any concern for the environment. And despite this, those same military decided not to continue with this project because it was horribly “dirty”.
If this type of propulsion seemed too dangerous to the American military 50 years ago, it is worrying that Russia has developed it as it seems. It's possible? Scientists think so. It was not a complicated technology and it did not take a long time to do it. If Russia decided at some point of maximum crisis to give it the green light, in little more than a decade it is possible. And in 2002 Russia became very angry at the United States for its anti-ballistic missile plan.
It is clear that testing such a prototype weapon would not go unnoticed in today's world watched by satellites. But there is news of something similar tested in the Arctic that ended in an accident ... If they have tried it, someone knows , that's for sure. And in that case that someone will be very worried. Especially if it is something that they themselves discarded during the Cold War.
In the 1950s it seemed that nuclear energy was going to be used for everything. Even to cook at home. Little by little the security problems and the danger of radiation were seen. But even NASA is now considering developing a nuclear rocket engine , for use outside of Earth. Yes, Vladimir Putin may have developed Russian missiles that are very scary for various reasons. Hopefully they never take off and better if they don't see the light.