On June 6, 2021, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that experiments were being carried out at Novaya Zemlya, the site for nuclear weapons testing in the Arctic Ocean. Major General Igor Kolensikov, head of the 12th Directorate General of the Defense Ministry, told Zvezda TV station that the tests are “non-nuclear” experiments – also known as “sub-reviews” – intended to verify the reliability of the existing nuclear arsenal. This means that the tests are carried out without nuclear production, although military grade hardware is likely involved. As the Barents Observer reports, such tests may include a small amount of plutonium sufficient to explode, but not enough to achieve critical mass and create the self-sustaining chain reaction responsible for a nuclear boom. Instead, the effects of a life-size bang are seen in advanced computer simulations. The use of this technique is authorized under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996. Russia’s accession to this treaty, which has yet to be ratified by all other nuclear states except the UK and France, indicates its commitment to international nuclear weapons control.
Following claims by a senior US Defense Intelligence Agency official in 2019 that Russia “probably” did not adhere to the 1996 treaty, Kolensikov sought to publicly stress that their commitment to the deal is “Why [they] are now conducting non-nuclear explosives experiments ”. This contrasts with the atmospheric and underground nuclear tests led by the Soviet Union. In addition, he noted that “the radiation background does not exceed the natural background” and explained that the site is continuously monitored by international laboratories in collaboration with Russian laboratories. The same seems 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 was Jeffrey Lewis, program director for East Asia, who pointed out that “it is similar to the subcritical testing facility that the United States has built in Nevada” .
Sarah Bidgood, director of the Eurasian program 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 to verify does not work “. This could have resulted in the non-renewal of the new 2010 START or impacted subsequent arms control agreements with Russia. However, the new administration Biden chose to extend the treaty when he took office. The irony, of course, is that the United States has yet to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty alongside China, Egypt, India, Iran, d ‘Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. Kolensikov’s attempt at transparency, which accompanied a new 40-minute documentary on the central Novaya Zemlya test site, signifies Russia’s desire to keep the United States and others engaged in non-proliferation efforts .
The importance of these non-nuclear weapons testing, as opposed to previous atmospheric and underground testing techniques, can be seen in Novaya Zemlya and the surrounding region. Designated as a nuclear weapons test site in July 1954, the islands suffered 130 nuclear detonations, 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 October 30, 1961, Tsar Bomba exploded 4000m above Severny Island. It was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created and tested. The consequences of this accumulated radioactivity are difficult to assess given the secrecy of the area, but a 1993 topographical survey by geologist John Matzko found that at least one test site had severe leaks due to cracks in the area. rock formations. Countries neighboring Finland and Norway have 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 reference level of 0.228 Bq / m³).
Therefore, the transparency of the Russian Defense Ministry is to be welcomed. As long as Russia insists on having nuclear weapons, it is reasonable and even desirable that their existing arsenal be tested for reliability. The fact that these tests are non-nuclear, which limits the environmental and health impacts, makes the world a safer place. Moreover, since these tests respect international law, Russia demonstrates its reliability as a voluntary partner in the control of nuclear weapons. Compared to reckless imitations of the apocalypse inflicted on Novaya Zemlya half a century ago, recent tests reflect a more subdued, albeit powerful, world.