The risks to human survival were once out of our hands. Disease and famine our greatest threat. Industrial revolutions have neutralised many of those threats while creating new potentially more potent and entirely man-made ones. Climate Change and nuclear weapons
While global warming has had more coverage in the last few years, you may be forgiven for thinking that nuclear threats are remote or isolated to attempts to create them in nations like North Korea and Iran.
That is mostly true, but recent developments between the US and Russia may see the nuclear threat becoming more real.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained a clock to act as a proxy for the risk of major human disaster. When the clock was first set in 1947 it was just 7 minutes to midnight. It calculated the potential for global disaster was real and everyone should treat the risk as serious. The time is updated whenever the group of scientists determine that risk has been reduced or elevated. It has been amended 25 times since with the least risk having been determined to be in 1991 when the clock was set to 17 minutes. The Cold War had just ended and Russia and the US agreed to reduce their nuclear stockpiles.
The real risk then should be climate change. The clock has been updated numerous times since and never to a point more than those 17 minutes.
In January this year, the clock was set to just two minutes to midnight, the closest to midnight since 1953 when building and testing nuclear weapons was in full production.
In March last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the construction of six superweapons. The announcement was made just weeks before elections.
It was widely covered and set up a challenge to the US that the balance of power was shifting.
The US earlier this year accused Russia of not abiding by the terms of their nuclear agreement which banned nuclear weapons that operate between 500 and 5 500km. Russia denied this. Rather than challenge Russia, the US has decided to end the treaty.
On the 6th of August, the world marked the 74th anniversary of the first atomic detonation over a populated area in Hiroshima, Japan. Despite the deaths of as many as 250 000 people, the countries that created the weapons appear to have forgotten just how destructive they are.
On the 8th of August, an explosion at a Russian test facility resulted in a reported 7 deaths following a test on an engine that used a nuclear isotope.
Was the test on one of the superweapons Putin had announced months earlier? Does it suggest that Russia is getting closer to building a new doomsday weapon?
Doomsday weapons - Skyfall missile
A doomsday weapon is one that when used on its own or in conjunction with other weapons has the ability to end life on Earth.
This nuclear-capable missile would use a nuclear-powered engine and air as a propellant. That probably does not make sense but the theory and even the technology was already developed in the 50s.
Nuclear reactions cause the reactor to get hot. Jets worked by expelling propellant at speed resulting in forward motion. An air-powered nuclear engine uses air to cool the reactor while heating the air which is expelled as the propellant. A missile size nuclear reactor would remain hot for weeks allowing the missile to fly for the same time effectively flying anywhere. This would allow a missile to avoid current anti-nuclear sites and attack the US from a direction that it currently does not have defences.
The explosion in Russia may be related to testing such an engine to build the Burevestnik (“Storm Petrel”) nuclear-powered cruise missile which NATO has labelled as the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
While not a reliable source of information, US President Trump's Twitter account also referred to this as a missile experiment and then went on to say the US had similar but more advanced versions.
The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian “Skyfall” explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2019
The US had explored the technology both as a potential for space travel and as a missile, but officially has abandoned both as being impractical.
Doomsday Weapon - Poseidon nuclear submarine missile
Nuclear powered subs are operated by both the US and Russia, they are able to fire nuclear missiles. Defences have been developed to track and shoot down such weapons albeit not with 100% success.
Using a nuclear-powered drone sub, it is the missile. Reported to use a 100 megaton warhead the weapon would detonate near coastal towns creating radioactive tsunamis or destroying entire aircraft carriers fleets.
Sound travels well in water so detecting its engine should not be too difficult, however, it's reported speed is what should allow it to escape harm. It is claimed to travel at over 100 km/h.
Doomsday Weapon - hypersonic missile
Speed for aircraft is measured using the speed of sound in air which is just over 1000 km/h or Mach 1. Supersonic craft can travel up to 5 times the speed of sound while Hypersonic craft travel above Mach 5.
Putin claimed their new missile would travel at Mach 10. Stopping something traveling that fast would be difficult as few things can travel that fast. It would be covering over 3kms per second. A missile fired in Cape Town would reach a target in Joburg in 7 minutes.
How concerned should you be?
The claims should not be ignored but there is a reason why most of the theory and even the technology was conceived and even tested in the 50s and 60s. It is very hard to create and control.
The Skyfall missile would need to travel at a speed that balances the amount of air ingested in the reactor with how much it can expel, that is a fine balancing act. Despite having the ability to travel far it could still be tracked and potentially intercepted.
The hypersonic missile appears to be one that Russia does have some success with, however, at such high speeds the missile may burn up in the air and certainly would not be able to fly at low altitudes given the increased air pressure.
The Poseidon sub to carry a 100 megaton warhead was to create a tsunami. It is contested that creating the world’s largest-ever torpedo and the equally largest nuclear bomb would not be able to travel at the high speeds claimed. If it was optimised for speed it would be a smaller warhead which some reports say are actually two megatons. It is still very destructive but unlikely to generate tsunamis.
The bizarre but logical use of nuclear weapons is that they are M.A.D weapons which is to say they guarantee mutually assured destruction. The current nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US number in the thousands and even if many may be shot down in a full nuclear exchange, enough would reach their targets to risk ending human life on Earth. An attack effectively ensures the attackers own destruction.
The new weapons claim whether true or false does not change the reality that Russia and the US are in a position to end human life on Earth if those weapons don't remain purely a deterrent. Are we living in a time when either country might feel willing to fire their weapons?
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists called the situation we now face as the new abnormal.