"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
CTBTO Head Visits Russian Nuclear Test Site
Share this

Christine Kucia

In a recent trip to a Russian nuclear test site, the head of the organization tasked with implementing a nuclear test ban treaty praised Russia for its transparency and cooperation. U.S. intelligence analysts have expressed concern Russia might be conducting prohibited tests at the site.

Ambassador Wolfgang Hoffmann, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission, visited the Russian nuclear weapons test site at Novaya Zemlya March 28-29 at the invitation of the Russian government. Novaya Zemlya, a large island located to the north of mainland Russia, was the site of 130 Soviet nuclear test explosions, conducted from 1955 to 1990.

During an April 8 interview with Arms Control Today, Hoffmann praised the Russian government’s effort “to show transparency, to show goodwill” by allowing the tour of the test site. He explained, “For me, [the trip’s purpose] was simple—I wanted to see what was going on. And this was exactly what the Russians wanted to show: that they had nothing going on in breach of the treaty.”

In September 1996, Russia signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits all forms of nuclear explosions, and ratified the pact in April 2000. Treaty signatories and ratifiers are bound by a common understanding under international law not to conduct nuclear test explosions, even before the agreement enters into force. Despite Russia’s participation in the treaty, some U.S. intelligence analysts have expressed concern about ongoing sub-critical nuclear testing activities at the site. (See ACT, June 2002.) Russia, however, has proposed “additional verification measures for nuclear test ranges going far beyond the treaty provisions” following the treaty’s entry into force, which might help allay concerns about noncompliance.

Hoffmann asserted that, through the monitoring system established by the CTBTO, “we can verify by our technical means what is happening or what is not happening at these test sites, so these visits are more a measure of transparency, but not really a verification measure.” Russia already has treaty-mandated monitoring devices installed on its territory to determine if it has conducted a proscribed test.

The CTBTO oversees the establishment and operation of a global system of seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound, and radionuclide monitoring stations, as well as data compilation and analysis to ascertain whether incidents are nuclear tests, natural seismological occurrences, or other man-made disturbances, such as mining explosions. Currently, data from operational monitoring stations is being collected by the CTBTO in Vienna.

Hoffmann and Russian officials flew to the site March 28 and the next day conducted a helicopter overflight of the underground area where Russia carried out underground nuclear tests between 1964 and 1990. Russia continues to conduct at the site subcritical nuclear tests, which do not produce a nuclear explosion and thus do not violate its CTBT commitment. Russian officials showed Hoffmann gamma measurements taken during the overflight that confirmed lower gamma dose rates than those found in some large cities. Hoffmann noted that “they were very open in showing and discussing what they are doing at the test site and in what way they are conducting tests.”

Hoffmann’s visit to Russia included three days of meetings with officials from the Russian Ministries of Atomic Energy, Defense, and Foreign Affairs. At the beginning of the visit, Hoffmann met with Russian technical experts about on-site inspection activities for this year and building up the monitoring station network in Russia, which has the second-largest number of seismic monitoring stations in the CTBTO monitoring system. The March meeting laid the groundwork for further discussions about the monitoring station network, which were held April 9-11 in Vienna.

This trip was the CTBTO’s first visit to the site in Russia. Hoffmann has also visited the Nevada Test Site in the United States—where the United Kingdom and the United States conduct subcritical tests—and the former French test site at Mururoa. Russia’s ambassador in Washington toured the Nevada site in July 2001, but the United States has not received a similar offer to visit Novaya Zemlya.

The visit by Hoffmann occurred amid speculation about his possible departure from the organization. A February 21 Global Security Newswire article reported that a U.S. official brought up the subject of Hoffmann’s departure in an interview, citing labor standards that govern the tenure of other CTBTO employees. Hoffmann, exempt from the seven-year tenure rule, is appointed annually. He said that he has no plans to step down at the end of his current contract in March 2004.