Sergei Ivanov and Sergei Kirienko inspect the Novaya Zemlya test site

Russia’s sole remaining nuclear test site, at the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, was inspected last week by two senior officials responsible for nuclear weapons. They concluded that the Novaya Zemlya test site is completely ready to carry out full-scale nuclear tests.

Russia is ready to modernize its nuclear arsenal. President Vladimir Putin set this task for Russia’s nuclear weapons complex leaders on June 9. Russia’s sole remaining nuclear test site, at the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, was inspected last week by two senior officials responsible for nuclear weapons: Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Federal Atomic Energy Agency (RosAtom) chief Sergei Kirienko. They concluded that the Novaya Zemlya test site is completely ready to carry out full-scale nuclear tests.

Sergei Ivanov last visited Novaya Zemlya three years ago. Belushya Guba, the town for test site personnel, was a sorry sight back then: paint peeling from buildings due to continual high winds, garbage in the streets. Nowadays, Russia’s northernmost military garrison looks picture-perfect: it has apartment buildings, a kindergarten, a school, and a sports center. The formerly unprepossessing and ill-equipped town has become a spot of brightness and color against the surrounding gray-black tundra. But Sergei Ivanov didn’t come to Novaya Zemlya just to inspect the social infrastructure; he was also there to check that the test site itself is ready to perform tests. Ivanov was accompanied to Novaya Zemlya – more precisely, to Matochkin Shar Strait – by RosAtom chief Sergei Kirienko.

Ivanov summed up the purpose of his visit as follows: “Proceeding from realities, we are keeping the test site in a state of permanent readiness. While complying with all commitments to refrain from full-scale nuclear testing, we are working here to maintain our nuclear shield.”

This was Ivanov’s response to a question about whether his heightened interest in Novaya Zemlya is somehow connected to a possible response from Russia to US intentions to resume nuclear tests at the Nevada test site. The United States is the only nuclear power which has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Washington does not regard this as a cause of concern, and responds to all criticism from the international community by saying that the United States has declared a moratorium on nuclear tests, and this measure is quite sufficient. But the US administration’s decision to unfreeze work on developing miniaturized nuclear weapons ($15 million has already been allocated for these purposes) indicates that politicians and military leaders in the United States are psychologically prepared to cross the nuclear Rubicon.

All the same, the Nevada and Novaya Zemlya test sites haven’t been entirely idle during the ten years of the nuclear test moratorium. Instead of conducting full-scale nuclear tests, which are forbidden by the CTBT, scientists in the United States and Russia have proposed new technologies for checking storage safety and functionality of nuclear weapons. This is called subcritical or hydrodynamic testing, also known in Russia as nuclear explosion experiments.

These experiments use realistic models of nuclear devices, produced in the same way as fully-active nuclear devices. The only difference is that the simulation doesn’t involve a critical mass of nuclear material, with an explosion equivalent to no more than 100 kilograms of TNT. The model is placed in a special clay-encased container, sealed in concrete. The experiments pose no threat to the environment.

These containers enable subcritical tests to be done at no great risk to the environment or human lives, in the open air, even at “internal” test sites. If the container is ruptured, the heat emitted by chemical explosives causes the bentonine clay to turn to glass, sealing parts of the nuclear device in a glass coccoon, while also blocking geological cracks in the tectonic bedrock, preventing radioactive materials from penetrating beyond the bedrock. The third and fourth safety levels are the concrete “plug” and the bedrock itself. This kind of test is so safe that test personnel are located only 30 meters from the epicenter. Up to six of these “explosions” take place at Novaya Zemlya each year. Thanks to this, Russia is able to affirm that its nuclear arsenal is entirely secure and combat-ready.

According to Sergei Kirienko, nuclear weapons development plays a special role in the state armaments program to 2015. Funding for this item has been increased substantially.

“We are now able to do more than maintain our existing arsenals in working conditions – we can also work on improving them,” said Kirienko. “Work at Novaya Zemlya involves non-nuclear experiments with simulated nuclear weapons. We do enough of these each year to get a complete picture of what is happening to our nuclear weapons, and work for the future.”

As they say at RosAtom, a nuclear weapon is a living organism. The processes taking place within the nuclear materials it contains require constant monitoring. The mechanical and electronic components also need attention. Once every three years, each nuclear weapon is removed from storage and taken to the factory that produced it, where it is completely disassembled for a comprehensive technical inspection. But the chemical processes taking place within a weapon cannot be checked without an “explosion.” Neither are mathematical calculations and computer models sufficient to produce a 100% accurate forecast of how a new type of weapon will work.

Russia is strictly observing its commitments to refrain from full-scale nuclear testing – but at the same time, it prefers to keep its powder dry, so to speak. This is what has been demonstrated by the latest inspection of Novaya Zemlya. If any of the nuclear powers should break the CTBT, Moscow would be ready to make an adequate response. As for the nature of such a response – the ministers preferred not to go into that.

Novaya Zemlya test site statistics

Since September 21, 1955, the Novaya Zemlya test site has seen 132 nuclear explosions: one at ground level, three underwater, 83 in the air, three on the sea surface, and 42 underground. The total yield of all nuclear bombs tested at Novaya Zemlya came to 240 megatons, or 94% of all yield in Soviet tests. Novaya Zemlya was also the location of the world’s largest nuclear explosion, when a 100-megaton hydrogen bomb was tested at 50% capacity. The last nuclear explosion at Novaya Zemlya took place on October 24, 1990.