Russia muses over nuclear testing

Publish date: October 15, 1999

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russian nuclear lobby gets winning points over the failed CTBT ratification vote in the U.S. Senate.

The U.S. Senate failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has reinforced the position of underground nuclear testing proponents in Russia. No immediate moves to start nuclear bombs explosions at Novaya Zemlya test field in the Arctic are expected, but the chances for such scenario are not as slim as before.

In a 51-48 vote Wednesday that crashed one of the President Clinton’s major foreign policy goals, the Republican Majority in the Senate has also opened the way for resumption of underground nuclear testing. The opposition to nuclear moratorium in Russia is quite strong and has heavy arguments favouring testing, writes Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The underground tests were used to try out new nuclear device designs and to check for safety flaws in existing bombs.

The major argument rests on the fact that Russia is legging behind the United States in computer modelling of nuclear blasts in laboratories. This prompted Russia to start conducting so-called subcritical nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya, which contain the ingredients of a nuclear bomb, but fizzle out without any thermonuclear blast.

The U.S. is also conducting subcritical testing, but scientists at Los Alamos laboratory say this is not enough. The U.S. Government spends $4.5 billion a year on a sophisticated laboratory test program, but in testimony before the ratification vote, the laboratory directors said it would not be fully operational for at least 5 to 10 years.

"I am confident that a fully supported and sustained program will enable us to continue to maintain America’s nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing," said John C. Browne, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in an interview with New York Times. "However, I am concerned about several trends that are reducing my confidence level each year."

In other words, the director says he can not do without underground testing, at least until the sophisticated computer modelling program is in place.

The situation in Russia is surely much sever – nobody expects the Government there to spend billions of dollars on development of computer modelling to replace testing.

"Politicians told us to find other ways to maintain our nuclear arsenals than testing," Radiy Ilkaev, the director of nuclear weapons research centre at Arzamas-16, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "But should we fail to find those other ways, we would have to resume nuclear testing again."

Taking into account the present disagreement between Russia and the United States over the antimissile defence treaty, the vote in the Senate will boost the lobby in Russia to drop the expensive and still not functional computer modelling and to turn back to the "good old times."

The last nuclear bomb was blasted in the permafrost of Novaya Zemlya in 1990. The United States tested its last nuclear device in Nevada desert in 1992. These two testing sites have not been abandoned and being in use to perform subcritical testing. To replace subcritical devices with nuclear bombs would take no time, once the politicians are convinced in an absolute necessity to extend the nuclear testing age beyond the millennium.