U.S. Officials Claim Russia Preparing for Nuclear Test

June 2002

By Philipp C. Bleek

In late April and early May, U.S. officials briefed select members of Congress on new intelligence that they believe indicates that Russia is preparing to conduct nuclear tests at its Novaya Zemlya test site, according to congressional sources.

Asked about the U.S. allegations at a May 13 briefing, a senior U.S. official said, “We expect the Russian government to carry out its pledge to refrain from nuclear testing.” The official said the situation illustrated why the administration feels the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is unverifiable, arguing that if a country seeks “to test in a deceptive manner…we might not be able to pick that up.” Ratified by Russia and signed by the United States, the treaty bans all nuclear weapons test explosions.

Questioned about the charges during a May 12 interview with Russia’s ORT television, Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov said he was surprised by the allegations, which he termed “ungrounded statements.” “There are still people in the United States who think in the categories of the Cold War,” Ivanov said.

A Foreign Ministry statement issued five days later said that Russia is “maintaining the readiness” of its test site but that reports claiming it is preparing to conduct tests are “totally at odds with reality.” The statement impugned U.S. motives, saying that the allegations were circulated “to divert the attention of the international community from the U.S. refusal to ratify the CTBT and the actual plans of the Pentagon to create a new generation of nuclear weapons that may require nuclear tests.”

In 1997, U.S. intelligence officials alleged that seismic and other data indicated that Russia had conducted a clandestine nuclear test in August of that year, leading the White House to issue a formal diplomatic protest to Moscow. The allegation was subsequently retracted when more careful analysis showed that the data was pointing to a seismic event, which was almost certainly a small earthquake, that had occurred beneath the sea floor some distance from Russia’s island test site. (See ACT, October 1997.)

Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA), who attended one of the highly classified congressional briefings, has successfully championed an amendment to the House version of the fiscal year 2003 defense authorization bill that calls for “joint visits by nuclear weapons scientists and experts” to U.S. and Russian nuclear test sites. The Senate version of the bill, which has not yet been finalized, does not contain a similar provision, and prospects for passage of Weldon’s amendment remain unclear.

At a November 2001 international conference on the CTBT, Russia proposed bilateral measures beyond those contained in the treaty to make test-site activity more transparent but indicated that Washington and Moscow should pursue such measures after the treaty has entered into force. (See ACT, December 2001.)