North Korea's rocket fuel is an accident waiting to happen

The spate of recent North Korean missile tests require a special, unstable rocket fuel, UDMH. The fuel is a rare chemical, not something North Korea has always been able to make on its own.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, believes cutting the North off from the fuel could halt the development of Pyongyang’s rocket program.

From the start of the Hermit Kingdom’s missile quest, the country likely imported the fuel from China, its largest producer. It is currently made by a number of countries, including Russia. But UDMH was the cause of the worst ICBM disaster in Russian history, the Nedelin Catastrophe.

In 1960, the second stage engine of a Soviet R-16 ignited at Baukonur Cosmodrome, killing 150 people.

A Soviet Field Marshal ordered that repairs be made to the fuel tanks of the rocket without draining the propellant. Right before the launch, an errant communications signal set off the second stage of the rocket, igniting the propellant in a gigantic fireball.

The fire from the fuel reached a temperature of 3,000 degrees. Field Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, who ordered the rocket repairs in the first place, was among those incinerated.

Marshal Nedelin.

UDMH is also responsible for the one of the worst ICBM disasters in American history. The liquid fuel in the missile silo of a Titan II rocket exploded near Damascus, Arkansas, after its tank was punctured by a falling tool. That was in 1980.

That tank was filled with Aerozine 50, a mix of hydrazine and UDMH.

Luckily, only one airman was killed at Damascus. The United States has since stopped producing the chemical and uses stable solid fuels, something that will take the North Koreans another decade to do on their own.

A North Korean soldier stands guard at a missile test site.

The New York Times reports that there are no known efforts to disrupt North Korea’s ability to obtain UDMH. State Department officials and North Korea experts believe that the North could produce the fuel domestically if its supplies from abroad were cut off.