Cows killed by soil poisoning by rocket fuel


© Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos


With an area of 17 million square kilometres, plus the still operational bases of the former Soviet Union, Russia has all the space it needs to engage in a key step in the advancement of military technology: weapons testing. But the tests do not always go as planned and accidents sometimes happen, with serious repercussions for the environment. Prior to 2000, a number of accidents were caused by missile launches. The Nedelin disaster of 1960 in the Russian Baikonur base in Kazakhstan is particularly significant as, in addition to the deaths caused by the explosion, it also led to dispersion of the so-called “devil’s venom”, a mixture of highly toxic and corrosive compounds that produce poisonous gas when burned, contaminating the surrounding area. A more recent incident involved the Proton-M rocket, designed as the world’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, but at the end of the Cold War used instead as a rocket to carry satellites into space. In 2013, during the launch again from Baikonur, Proton-M crashed after a few seconds of flight, releasing 600 tonnes of a propellant composed of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, a highly toxic and harmful hypergolic combination that causes long-term contamination of soil, water and air and acid rainfall.
Although not strictly speaking accidents, in China, launchers such as rockets from the Long March family are in constant use. They take off flying over rural villages, put the spacecraft into orbit, then fall back to earth in pieces that end up in local communities, where they represent a danger precisely due to the presence of toxic substances such as hypergolic fuels. Hopefully “greener” fuels will soon be available, making the impact of this type of incident less damaging, both on the valuable land offered for this research and on the population.

Aurora Licaj