20 SS-N-20 missiles to be destroyed in December: 80 tons of dangerous chemicals into the environmen

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, in the beginning of December this year 20 SS-N-20 ballistic missiles altogether were destroyed. The destruction is performed in compliance with p.3 article VII of the Start I agreement.

Beginning October 1996, the missiles (with nuclear warheads removed) are launched from a strategic submarine at the Barents Sea test site. Three minutes after the launch, a self-destruction device is activated, which destroys the missile at an altitude of approx. 10 kilometres.

This destruction method was developed by the Russian Makeev Design Bureau, which designed all Soviet/Russian sea-based ballistic missiles, with the exception of first SS-1B, but including the SS-N-20. According to the designers, the method is completely safe from an environmental point of view.

The first experimental destruction was performed at the end of October 1996. 20 more SS-N-20 missiles were destroyed in the beginning of March 1997. It should be noted that in March, missiles were destroyed at a height of 3,000 meters, rather than 10,000 as this time. In compliance with Start II agreement obligations, Russia would have to destroy no less than 350 missiles by 2007.

The SS-N-20 (Sturgeon – NATO classification, RSM-52 – Russian classification) is a three-stage, solid fuel ballistic missile deployed on Typhoon class nuclear-powered submarines. Each missile has a weight of 84 tons, is 16 m in length and 2,4 m in diameter. Max. range is 8,300 km. The missiles first entered service in 1983. Each missile has 10 nuclear warheads, and each Typhoon submarine is capable of carrying 20 SS-N-20s.

Environmental consequences
Solid rocket fuel consists mainly of ammonium perchlorate (or ammonium dimitramide), polyurethane, nitro platicizer and beryllium. The fuel capsule of SS-N-20 missiles is approx. 15 cubic meters in volume and contains some 4 tons of fuel. By destroying 20 missiles, about 80 tons of dangerous substances will be released into environment.

Incomplete combustion of polyurethane and ammonium perchlorate (or ammonium dimitramide) creates a risk of producing chlorinated hydrocarbons. If these products have sufficient mass, they will fall to the sea. If they are lightweight, on the other hand, they evaporate easily and enter the stratosphere were they pose a risk to the ozone layer.

Solid rocket fuel also contains beryllium. This metal is highly toxic and will enter sea water, or dry land, depending on wind direction and speed.

Lack of environmental aspects in Start-agreements
The absence of legislation concerning environmental consequences in START I and START II enhances the problems caused by ill-planned weapons destruction. According to a representative of American Embassy in Moscow, the START agreements do not specify the procedures for the destruction of weaponry. If these weapons contain radioactively, chemically or biologically contaminated materials, such safeguards are, however, of the greatest importance.

Thus, any START III agreement must take into account the hazards stemming from "economically viable" solutions, lest the destruction of the weapons be allowed to cause more damage than they inflicted during their active lives.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no