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U.S. Intelligence on Russian Nuclear Testing Activities

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Electronic Briefing Book, 1990-2000
George Washington Univerity

By Jeffrey Richelson

On September 24, 1996 seventy-one nations, including the five acknowledged nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the People's Republic of China - signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The signatories pledged not to conduct any nuclear weapon or other nuclear test explosion and to prohibit such explosion on their territory. In addition, they agreed to refrain from "causing, encouraging, or in any way participating in the carrying out of any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion." (Note 1) The treaty did not ban testing of warhead components that did not result in a nuclear yield--known as zero-yield, sub-critical, or hydrodynamic tests.

Russia had declared a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1990, and the United States followed after tests in September 1992. The United Kingdom ceased testing after 1991. French and Chinese testing continued for several years, both conducting their last tests in 1996--in time to sign and comply with the the CTBT. (Note 2)

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Despite the Russian moratorium that began before the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued under President Boris Yeltsin and Russia's signature of the CTBT, the U.S. continued to closely monitor Soviet-Russian test sites at Semipalatinsk and Novaya Zemlya. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, only Novaya Zemlya would remain inside Russian territory and become the sole Soviet test site. The activities at that site during the decade--often related to sub-critical tests, as well as occasional seismic events in the vicinity of the test site, along with the continued U.S. interest in Russian nuclear weapon developments, guaranteed that U.S. spy satellites and other technical collection systems would continue to be instructed to gather data on activities at Novaya Zemlya. (Note 3)

Indeed, there would be suspicions and charges--first in 1996 and even more seriously in 1997--that Russia had, despite its commitments, conducted a test at Novaya Zemlya. Thus, on August 16, 1997 a seismic signal from the vicinity of Novaya Zemlya registered at 3.2 on the Richter scale--consistent with a very small blast of between 0.1 and 1.0 kiloton, which might indicate scaled-down tests of a warhead primary. Since satellite imagery had been showing unusual levels of activity at the test site, there were fears that Russia had tested a nuclear device. While those fears would eventually be laid to rest by further analysis of the data, including by an outside review group, the initial suspicions generated considerable press reporting and intelligence analysis. (Note 4) [...]

Notes

1. "Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," p. 4. accessed September 10, 2006. Available at http://pws.ctbo.org

2. "The Nuclear Testing Tally," accessed September 10, 2006. Available at www.armscontrol.org

3. Ibid., pp. 421- 426.

4.. Ibid., pp. 422- 426.

Selected Documents

Note: The documents cited in this Electronic Briefing Book are in PDF format. You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document 2: Director of Central Intelligence, "Russia: [Deleted]: Nuclear Test Planned," National Intelligence Daily,February 12, 1993. Top Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This article informed the recipients of the National Intelligence Daily, distribution of which was restricted to about two hundred government officials, that Russia had notified Washington that it was planning to conduct a nuclear test in August, unless it chose to extend its moratorium on nuclear testing (which it eventually did). The commentary section notes the preference of the Russian nuclear and military community to test in response to a planned United States test in July 1993.

Document 4: Director of Central Intelligence, "Russia Nuclear Test Moratorium Likely to Continue," National Intelligence Daily, April 14, 1993. Top Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act

This item reports an announcement by Yeltsin ecology adviser Aleksey Yablokov that Russia would continue its nuclear moratorium--atleast until another country conducted a nuclear test. This redacted version concludes that Yablokov's comments may have been partly the result of his own opposition to testing; other factors remain secret. It also offers a prediction of how Russia would respond if the U.S. resumed nuclear testing.

Document 15: Office of Slavic and Eurasian Analysis, Central Intelligence Agency. "Bearly Testing?," The Eurasia Intelligence Weekly, June 23, 1995. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

One item in this weekly publication reports on the apparent Russian reaction to France's decision to resume nuclear testing, and the likely impact on Russia of a U.S. resumption of testing.

Document 28: Director of Central Intelligence, "Russia: Trying to Keep Nuclear Options Open [Deleted]," Senior Executive Intelligence Brief, January 11, 1999. Top Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This article discusses the motives behind Russia's efforts to modernize its nuclear weapons and strategic forces, and what some of the modernization efforts involve. It also reviews the impact of limited resources on submarine patrols, flight training, and mobile missile deployments.

Document 30: Director of Central Intelligence, "Russia: Results of Nuclear Test Program Last Year," and "Russia: Ambitious Nuclear Test Program This Year, Senior Executive Intelligence Brief, June 4, 1999. Top Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act

The heavily redacted version of the first article reports the comments of a senior atomic energy ministry official concerning the zero-yield tests conducted at Novaya Zemlya in the last quarter of 1998, while the second focuses on the planned testsfor 1999.

Document 33: Office of Transnational Issues, Central Intelligence Agency. Evidence of Russian Development of New Subkiloton Nuclear Warheads, August 30, 2000. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This study, substantial portions of which remain after redaction, examines the perceived need by Russian officials for "clean" very-low-yield nuclear weapons, Soviet-era development of tailored-output nuclear devices, the effects of high-energy X-rays, and Russian nuclear doctrine.