Russia could resume subcritical nuclear bomb tests in Arctic, sources say

Russia has beefed up military security surrounding its old Arctic nuclear test archipelago of Novaya Zemlya in preparation for so-called subcritical nuclear tests of its old nuclear weapons, unconfirmed reports in Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper indicate.

The tests, which would take place in Novaya Zemlya’s underground tunnel complex, are necessary in order to inspect Russia’s aging stockpiles of nuclear weapons – the world’s largest – the source, identified by the paper as working with Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, said.

Sergei Novikov, an official spokesman for the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, would not comment on Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s report when reached by telephone.

Defense Ministry officials able to comment on the military build up on Novaya Zemlya – which has included halting civilian passenger flights to the archipelago’s Rogachevo airport as far back as August and a reported build up of a naval and air force presence surrounding it – would not answer repeated calls.

Subcritical testing is intended to show whether nuclear weapons components such as plutonium and uranium are developing problems as they age. Such tests, if conducted appropriately, do not lead to the uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction, or “critical mass,” of an actual nuclear blast. Only small amounts of fissile material are used and no radioactivity is released.

The United Nation’s Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, does not prohibit subcritical testing. As of 1999, only the United States and Russia have acknowledged conducting subcritical tests.

No environmental threat – yet

Subcritical tests on Novaya Zemlya, some 960 kilometers east of northern Norway, do not pose an environmental danger, said Igor Kudrik, a Bellona expert on the Russian military and civilian nuclear complex.

“The tests can be done in a laboratory. There are no environmental hazards in and of themselves, but [the tests] suggest Russia is preparing for something larger, and that may go in the direction of performing an ordinary atomic bomb test,” said Kudrik.

In addition to determining safety and reliability of older nuclear warheads, subcritical tests can also be used to develop new generations of warheads.

But why now?

The motives behind ramping up subcritical tests at Novaya Zemlya, however, remain unclear. The Russian government spent a hefty sum of money to research the possibility of using Novaya Zemlya as a site for long-term storage of radioactive waste, but eventually gave up on the idea, said Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona.

Given those circumstances, said Nikitin, “I would immediately say that the [Novaya Zemlya] test range will be used again” for bomb tests.

“Today it is subcritical testing, tomorrow it could be more. Everything depends on world events,” continued Nikitin, a former Russian naval captain and nuclear inspector with the Russian Navy.

“If a war erupts between Israel and Iran, that would be a reason for standard nuclear tests. The day before yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea with nuclear weapons – this too could be used as a reason to begin more than subcritical tests,” he said.  

Nikitin said that subcritical tests give a “more or less clear picture” of how nuclear warheads are affected by age and whether they can remain in their missiles or need to be replaced. 

Report a possible response to US subcritical tests?

Bellona’s first foray into Russian nuclear issues came in 1990 when it sailed its vessel Genius to Novaya Zemlya to protest nuclear testing there. The boat was detained and later released by the Soviet coast guard.

Russia last carried out a series of subcritical tests beginning in 1998, but the tests ceased in 2000.  These tests took place during the same time frame that the United States was ramping up subcritical tests of its own, said a recent report from the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalization.

Russia’s unofficial floating of its plans for subcritical tests in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, speculated the Barents Observer news portal in Kirkenes, Norway, could be a response to US announcements that the US Department of Energy last month conducted underground subcritical testing of its own, according to the Canadian think-tank.

The Centre for Research on Globalization said in its report, published on September 30 that, “Since 2010, the US has ‘shot’ off three subcritical tests and has plans in late 2012 for ‘Pollux,’ a ‘first-of-a-kind demonstration’ combining a ‘scaled subcritical experiment’ with plutonium-239.”

It continued to read that “[w]hat we’re seeing in real-time in September 2012 is a replay of 1998,” in reference to the US tests that triggered the Russian tests during the same time period.

The Soviet Union conducted 715 nuclear bomb tests between 1949 and 1990, the last occurring on Novaya Zemlya. Of those tests, 215 were detonated in the atmosphere between 1949 and 1962, with the remaining 500 being detonated from 1963 in underground bunkers.

Testing Russia’s aging stockpile – is something bigger on the way?

During the Soviet era, plutonium in warheads was replaced at least every 10 years, but the process was expensive and cumbersome.

Given the age of the Russian stockpile, the Rosatom source that spoke to Nezavisimaya Gazeta could be entirely correct in suggesting the supposed subcritical tests are merely an effort to determine what warheads should be scrapped.

But Bellona’s Kudrik remained concerned that Russia’s resumption of subcritical testing “suggests that they are preparing for something bigger.”

He said Bellona would continue to monitor the situation.

Subcritical tests in a radioactive graveyard

This monitoring is especially important given the catalogue of enormous finds of nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel  – from 2000 containers of radioactive waste, to old and damaged submarine reactors to an entire nuclear submarine – that were sunk in the shallows surrounding Novaya Zemlya for decades by Soviet, then Russia authorities.

A recently returned joint Russian-Norwegian expedition – the first of its kind in 18 years – has indicated that the K-27 nuclear submarine, which was scuttled by the Navy as waste in 50 meters of water in Novaya Zemlya’s Stepovogo Bay, should be researched for lifting and safe storage of its damaged reactors to avoid a possible nuclear chain reaction and explosion.

The sub, which suffered a radiation emergency that killed nine sailors in 1968, was dumped in Stepovogo Bay by the Russian Navy in 1981.

Preliminary reports from the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA) have said that contamination surrounding the vessel, which has two liquid metal cooled reactors stuffed with spent nuclear fuel on board, has not increased since it was last inspected in 1993 and again in 2000.

But the NRPA has emphasized the importance of conducting environmental impact studies as soon as possible to determine the feasibility of lifting the sub.

The supposed plans to conduct subcritical nuclear testing on Novaya Zemlya would do nothing to ease the radiation woes in the region of the Kara and Barents Seas, suggested Kudrik.

Oil exploration concerns

The possible nuclear tests and the sunken radioactive waste in the region are a concern for oil majors, including Norway’s Statoil, who are participating in the Arctic oil gold rush. Some one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil resources are believed to lie in the Arctic.

Statoil in May inked a deal with Russian state oil monopoly Rosneft to explore the Barents Sea region west of Novaya Zemlya. Statoil has said it plans to drill nine exploration wells in the Arctic by next year, according to the E42 Norwegian-language news agency.

Statoil spokesman Bård Petersen did not immediately respond to text messages from Bellona as to whether the apparent plans for subcritical tests on Novaya Zemlya would alter its exploration plans with Rosneft.

While emphasizing that the financial responsibility for cleaning up the radioactive dump in Arctic seas lies with the Russian government, Bellona’s Kudrik suggested late last month that big oil should assist in accelerating the process by lending its offshore expertise.

“Oil companies should make sure that the area is swiped clean of nuclear waste before they start any oil exploration activity,” said Kudrik. “In the worst-case scenario – that is, an uncontrolled chain reaction in the reactors of K-27 – radiation will spread in the Kara Sea and create major difficulties for any industrial activity.”