Subcritical nuke tests may be resumed at Novaya Zemlya

Novaya Zemlya with the nuclear test field in the Matotchkin Strait seen from the Barents Sea. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom says new tests are needed to determine the safety of the ageing stocks of nuclear weapons.


Russia is believed to have the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, but the weapons are getting older, and with age come security and safety challenges. The only still-existing test area is Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic.

Sources in Rosatom say to Nezavisimaya Gazeta it is possible that so-called subcritical nuclear experiments will be resumed to check if the weapons still are safe.

Subcritical nuclear tests contain the ingredients of a nuclear warhead, plutonium or uranium, but fizzle out without any thermonuclear blast. If everything goes well such tests are not accompanied by radioactive emissions. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty does not prohibit subcritical tests, a fact many other countries except Russia and USA has criticized.

In addition to determine safety and reliability of older nuclear warheads, subcritical tests can also be used to develop new generations of warheads.

Last known series of subcritical tests on Novaya Zemlya took place in the years 1998 to 2000. Russia’s unofficial announcement hinted in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta last Friday could come as a response to a U.S. subcritical test announced to blast off later this autumn. The test, named “Pollux” will be “first-of-a-kind demonstration” combining a subcritical test with plutonium-239. Centre for Research and Globalization writes in an analytic article that “what we’re seeing in real-time in September 2012 is a replay of 1998.”

The 1998 to 2000 series of subcritical tests in the tunnels at Novaya Zemlya took place simultaneously as US was ramping up their rates of subcritical nuclear tests.

Another sign that Russia is “up-to-something” at the test range at Novaya Zemlya is the closure of civilian air-traffic to the Rogachevo airport. The airport serves the nuclear test field located in the Matochkin Strait, dividing the northern and southern islands. Last week, BarentsObserver reported about Russia’s plans to base a group of supersonic interceptor Mig-31 aircraft at the same airfield.

The last real nuclear weapon underground detonation took place at Novaya Zemlya on October 24, 1990.