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The New York Times' Russia Confirms Radioactive Materials Were Involved in Deadly Blast discusses the potential nuclear aspects of the recent missile test and references several time the possibility of development and testing of nuclear propulsion in missiles.

MOSCOW — A mystery explosion at a Russian weapons testing range involved radioactive materials, the authorities admitted on Saturday, as the blast’s admitted death toll rose and signs of a creeping radiation emergency, or at the least fear of one, grew harder to mask.

In a statement released at 1 a.m. Saturday, Russia’s nuclear energy company, Rosatom, said five employees had died, in addition to the two military personnel previously confirmed dead, as a result of a test on Thursday morning involving “isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit.”

“A bright memory of our comrades will forever live in our hearts,” the statement said.

Later it says:

Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, interpreted the presence of Rosatom nuclear engineers at the test site as confirming “the version that the military could have been experimenting with the newest rocket with a nuclear power unit.”

One new weapon Mr. Putin had discussed was a globe-spanning cruise missile called Burevestnik or the Petrel, named for the far-flying seabird. It would have an unlimited range thanks to a nuclear propulsion unit, he said. Mr. Putin said the device had already been tested.

“Russia’s advanced arms are based on the cutting-edge, unique achievements of our scientists, designers and engineers,” Mr. Putin said in the 2018 speech. “One of them is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile.”

Nuclear propulsion would use a thermonuclear source of some type to heat a material of some type to extremely high temperature and channel it though a nozzle. Often liquid hydrogen is mentioned.

Based on known principles of nuclear propulsion and any other reputable and possibly recent sources of information what is most likely to be the basis of the suspected and advertised Russian nuclear rocket propulsion? For example, would it be possible to be a fission reactor where the thermal output can be turned up and down, or a radioisotope that's "hot" all the time, or something more exotic such as the isomer source discussed in answers to How did Northrop Grumman propose to make the Global Hawk nuclear powered??

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure this is space exploration related. It's a endoatmospheric military system. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 11 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ We'll have to disagree then. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 11 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ Dammit, don't scare me like that. It's Arkhangelsk area... while my mother is about to travel through Krasnoyarsk region where a completely different ammo depot exploded recently... $\endgroup$ – SF. Aug 11 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ The obvious thing if you want a cruise missile with unbounded range is to have a nuclear-powered jet engine, since this means you don't have to carry your reaction mass which is obviously going to limit the range. Cruise missiles are generally powered by jets, not rockets already. Given that the thing Russia is rumoured to be developing is a cruise missile, then this is off-topic for this SE I think: it's nothing to do with space, and a nuclear-powered jet engine is not very useful in space. $\endgroup$ – tfb Aug 11 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ In his 2018 speech, Putin claimed a cruise missile with a "highly-efficient on-board miniaturized nuclear reactor"; other sources have suggested that this is a liquid-salt design with the fuel dissolved in the salt. That would explain the “isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit.” language. $\endgroup$ – Bob Jacobsen Aug 11 at 20:40
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The missile in question is a cruise missile. That means this is probably not a rocket, but a jet engine driven by a nuclear reactor. If there's any sanity left in Russia, it'll be a closed-cycle system.

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  • $\begingroup$ rats, no nuclear rocket :-( $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 11 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ The BBC article bbc.com/news/world-europe-49319160 is interesting, and links to globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/krnd.htm $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 12 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, I can see how this could be a reaction mass based nuclear rocket design. I can see little reason for a weapon system to use a nuclear thermal rocket. The high ISP doesn't add much for an sub-orbital hop being able to fly low and fast on the other hand... (Or it could just be the payload). $\endgroup$ – drjpizzle Aug 12 at 17:46
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more possible, it's long-range cruise missile (powered by air-breathing engines). Fission component just provides power to on-board systems (electronics, radars, etc).

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    $\begingroup$ The press releases on Burevestnik brag about a range that's far longer than possible with fossil fuels. A nuclear power system just to run the radars would be heavier than the generator it replaces. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Aug 11 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ isotope sources have been used to power deep space probes. electric generator on kerosene is overkill to power on-board stuff, the're no need for MW's or even kW's. however, the're possible second variant == rocket pushes on LEO silent MRV (maneuverable reentry vehicle) to stand on orbit for long time. That MRV is coated w/ radar-absorbing & low albedo material, so it cannot have solar batteries nor chemical power sources (they're short lasting). $\endgroup$ – Z0dCHiY8 Aug 11 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ I'm familiar with RTGs. They deliver a few hundred W for a weight of ~50 kg. A 1 kW generator weighs less than 1 kg. The generator is driven by the jet engine and can be sized for any load. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Aug 11 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ The SNAP 8 Experimental Reactor was a 600 kWt reactor that was tested from 1963 to 1965.[citation needed] The SNAP 8 Developmental Reactor had a reactor core measuring 9.5 by 33 inches (24 by 84 cm), contained a total of 18 pounds (8.2 kg) of fuel, had a power rating of 1 MWt. The reactor was tested in 1969 at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.[21] $\endgroup$ – Z0dCHiY8 Aug 11 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ i agree that a cruise missile is quite good w/ a classical generator, but silent satellites get the another story. $\endgroup$ – Z0dCHiY8 Aug 11 at 23:41

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