"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
U.S. Investigating Seismic Event Near Russian Nuclear Test Site


Craig Cerniello

ON AUGUST 16, several seismological monitoring stations in northern Europe detected a seismic event in the vicinity of the Russian nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya. The Washington Times reported on August 28 that some U.S. officials suspect the event may have been caused by a low yield nuclear explosion. Russia, which instituted a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing in 1991 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) Treaty in 1996, has officially stated that the seismic event was a small earthquake. As of the end of August, the Clinton administration has not reached a conclusion as to the nature of the event. It is unclear what impact, if any, the seismic event will have on the administration's plans to submit the CTB Treaty to the Senate, possibly as early as late September


Status of the Seismic Event

During an August 28 Defense Department briefing, Captain Michael Doubleday announced the Clinton administration's initial reaction to the incident: "We are aware that a seismic event with explosive characteristics occurred in the vicinity of the Russian nuclear test range at Novaya Zemlya on the 16th of August. The information which we have is still under review, and we've reached no conclusions at this point." The administration has also requested further clarification from Russia regarding the event, variously reported as between 3.3 and 3.8 on the Richter scale.

Meanwhile, in an August 29 interview with Itar Tass, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov said, "The nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya was closed down, and Russia strictly complies with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty." He described the seismic event as "an ordinary earthquake" in the Kara Sea, located approximately 100 kilometers from Novaya Zemlya in a commonly known seismic area. Apparently in response to reports of increased activity at Novaya Zemlya, Mikhailov noted that "hydrodynamic experiments" (which do not utilize fissile materials, produce no nuclear yield and are clearly permissible under the CTB Treaty) are being conducted at that location.

The seismic event was detected by six seismological stations that will be part of the CTB Treaty's international monitoring system (IMS)—a global network of 321 seismological, radionuclide, infrasound and hydroacoustic stations designed to detect and identify nuclear explosions prohibited by the treaty—as well as several other seismological stations in the region. The six IMS stations that detected the seismic event are located in Arti and Norilsk, Russia; Hamar and Spitsbergen, Norway; Lahti, Finland; and Hagfors, Sweden. Another IMS station located in Karasjok, Norway, most likely would have been able to pick up the event as well, had it not been shut down for repairs.

Critics of the CTB have seized on the seismic event as evidence that either the Russians have already cheated or that it will be impossible to verify whether low yield nuclear explosions have occurred under the treaty. For instance, Senator Jon Kyl (R AZ) said in The Washington Times on August 29 that "Russia's action raises key questions. When will the Clinton administration get serious about Russian violations of its arms control commitments?"

Supporters of the CTB, however, have challenged the assertion that the seismic event was caused by a nuclear explosion and have pointed out that several monitoring stations in the IMS were able to detect the event, demonstrating the effectiveness of the treaty's verification regime. Moreover, proponents have argued that once the CTB enters into force there will be additional tools available to help states parties determine whether a violation has occurred, especially provisions allowing for on site inspections.

Since the CTB was only opened for signature in September 1996 and has not yet entered into force, the IMS is only in the process of being developed. Thus far, over 25 of the 50 primary seismological stations in the IMS, 40 50 of the 120 auxiliary seismological stations, 15 of the 80 radionuclide stations, one of the 60 infrasound stations and two of the 11 hydroacoustic stations are in existence. These facilities, however, still require varying degrees of upgrades to meet treaty specifications.

Information gathered by the IMS will be transmitted to the treaty's International Data Center (IDC) for storage and processing. The IDC, to be located in Vienna, will provide information on suspicious events to states parties to help them analyze whether a treaty violation may have occurred. The Defense Department has already set up a prototype IDC at the Center for Monitoring Research in Arlington, VA. The Preparatory Commission for the CTB Treaty Organization has been meeting regularly to help facilitate the transfer of this prototype facility to its permanent location in Vienna, scheduled for 1999, and to complete the establishment of the IMS.