Russia Conducts Non-Nuclear Tests, Adhering To UN Treaty

On 6 June 2021, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that experiments are currently being conducted at Novaya Zemlya, the nuclear weapons test site in the Arctic Ocean. Major-General Igor Kolensikov, Head of the Defence Ministry’s 12th General Directorate, told the TV channel Zvezda that the tests are ‘non-nuclear’ – also known as ‘subcritical’ – explosive experiments intended to verify the reliability of the existing nuclear arsenal. This means that tests are carried out without nuclear yield, though weapons-grade material is likely involved. As the Barents Observer reports, such tests may include a small amount of plutonium sufficient to explode, but not enough to reach a critical mass and create the self-sustaining chain reaction responsible for a nuclear bang. Instead, the effects of a full-size bang are observed in advanced computer simulations. The use of this technique is permitted under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996. Russia’s adherence to this treaty, which remains unratified by all other nuclear states bar the UK and France, indicates its engagement in international control of nuclear weapons.

Following claims, by a senior official at the US Defence Intelligence Agency in 2019, that Russia was “probably” not adhering to the 1996 treaty, Kolensikov sought to publicly emphasise that their commitment to the accord is “why [they] are now conducting non-nuclear explosive experiments”. This contrasts with the atmospheric and underground nuclear tests carried out by the Soviet Union. Moreover, he noted that “the radiation background does not exceed the natural background” and explained that the site is continually monitored by international laboratories in conjunction with Russian ones. The same appears to have been true in 2019 when open-source analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies detected no alarming activity at Novaya Zemlya. Indeed, it is East Asia Program Director Jeffrey Lewis who pointed out that “it’s similar to the subcritical testing facility the United States built at Nevada.”

Sarah Bidgood, Eurasian Program Director at the James Martin Center, suspected in 2019 that the US official had, without evidence, sought to propagate the idea that “Russia is an unreliable partner in arms control, with whom verification does not work.” This could have resulted in the non-renewal of the 2010 New START or impacted subsequent arms-control agreements with Russia. However, the new Biden administration did choose to extend the treaty upon taking office. The irony, of course, is that the United States is yet to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty alongside China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Kolensikov’s attempt at transparency, which accompanied a new 40-minute documentary on the Central Test Site at Novaya Zemlya, signifies a desire by Russia to keep the US and others engaged in nonproliferation efforts.

The importance of this non-nuclear weapons testing, as opposed to previous techniques of atmospheric and underground tests, is observable in Novaya Zemlya and the surrounding region. Designated as a nuclear weapons test site in July 1954, the islands were subjected to 130 nuclear detonations, the scuttling of nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines, nuclear waste from the reprocessing plants at La Hague and Sellafield, and 13 decrepit nuclear reactors. Most infamously, on 30 October 1961, the Tsar Bomba detonated 4,000m above Severny Island. It was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created and tested. The consequences of this accumulated radioactivity are hard to assess given the area’s secrecy, but a 1993 topographical survey by geologist John Matzko found that at least one test site had severe leakage due to cracks in the rock formations. The neighbouring countries of Finland and Norway also reported increased levels of radiation, with radioactive iodine-131 measured at concentrations of 5 million Bq/m³ and 1.37 million Bq/m³ respectively (compared to a guideline level of 0.228 Bq/m³). 

Therefore, the Russian Defence Ministry’s transparency is to be welcomed. As long as Russia insists upon having nuclear weapons, it is reasonable and indeed desirable that their existing arsenal be tested for reliability. That these tests are non-nuclear, which limits environmental and health impacts, makes the world safer. Moreover, as these tests abide by international law, Russia demonstrates its’ reliability as a willing partner in nuclear weapons control. Compared to the reckless imitations of the apocalypse inflicted on Novaya Zemlya half a century ago, the recent tests are a reflection of a more restrained, albeit potent, world.

Isaac Evans