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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Novaya Zemlya
Northern Test Site
N 73°23' E 54°45'

Novaya Zemlya was the site of extensive Soviet atmospheric and underground testing, including the largest thermonuclear device ever tested, a 58 megaton air-dropped bomb detonated October 23, 1961. Of the 42 underground explosions at Novaya Zemlya, 25 were accompanied by release of radioactive inert gases. There were three underwater explosions, each less than 20 kiloton, but most of the radionuclides remained in the water and sediments. A total of 17 reactors were dumped in the Barents Sea, to the west of Novaya Zemlya, including seven containing spent nuclear fuel.

Novaya Zemlya is characterized by a severe climate, with frequent, extremely strong winds ("Bora") which accompany lower temperatures and cause snow or dust storms. The Bora are caused by extreme air pressure differences between the Barents and Kara Seas (the Murman current, a branch of the Gulf Stream, flows into the Barents Sea and along the western coast of Novaya Zemlya, thereby causing the Barents Sea to be somewhat warmer than the Kara Sea). The monthly mean wind speed averages about 8 m/sec over the year, with mean annual peak gusts about 32 m/sec.

On Novaya Zemlya, summers are cold and short, starting in June and continuing until September. Temperatures can rise to a maximum of 240 C (750 p) in July, but the average mean summer temperature is about 4.20 c (40° F). The mean relative humidity averages 80 percent. Rain is frequent but light. Thunderstorms are rare but may occur during late spring and summer. The surface frost-free period is less than 45 days, from early July to middle August, but night frosts can occur during any of the summer months. During May, June and July the sun does not set and dense fogs can occur. Clear days are rare, ranging from one to four days per month in the summer, to three to nine days per month in the winter. By mid-October both the mean and average maximum daily temperatures are below freezing.

Winter begins in late October or early November and generally continues into April. Temperatures rarely rise above freezing, with daily mean temperatures averaging -13° C (8° F). Precipitation greater than 0.1 mm occurs on about one half of the winter days. Snow cover averages only 0.31 meters deep annually. The coldest month on the island is March, during which temperatures can drop to -44° C (-47° F).

The occurrence of sea ice varies significantly between the Barents and Kara seas throughout the year. Due to the presence of the warm Murman current, much of the Barents Sea remains open throughout the year. However, ice cover does occur along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya from November to May, with scattered ice remaing in the area through the first half of June. In contrast, the Kara Sea, which is insulated from the Murman current by Novaya Zemlya, is characterized by much more extensive ice cover.

In the mid-1950s, the USSR badly needed a training ground where nuclear weapons could be tested not only in the air and underground, but also at sea. By this time, the Americans for several years conducted nuclear tests on the atolls of Bikini and Enivetok in the Pacific Ocean. It is clear that the test range ["polygon"] should have been located as far as possible from large settlements and communications. New Earth fit perfectly. Only about 400 people lived here, and they were quickly relocated to the Arkhangelsk region.

In the summer of 1954 ten construction battalions landed on Novaya Zemlya. Although the construction of the Object-700 with an area of ??more than 90 thousand square kilometers was complicated by harsh climatic conditions, technical buildings, living quarters, laboratories and an airfield for fighter bases were ready in a year.

In the fall of 1955, the first nuclear underwater explosion occurred in the USSR on Novaya Zemlya. In the Chernaya Bay at a depth of 12 meters, a torpedo fired from a submarine with a RDS-9 charge of three and a half kilotons was blown up. The test was carried out in the interests of the Navy. The targets were several destroyers, minesweepers and submarines. The new training ground provided specialists with comprehensive information on the impact of a nuclear explosion on all types of weapons and military equipment.

It was on Novaya Zemlya that the world's most powerful thermonuclear bomb, AN602, known as the “Kuzkin Mother” or “Tsar Bomb”, with a capacity of 58 megatons, was tested several thousand times more than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The superbomb was dropped from a specially prepared Tu-95 bomber - the charge worked at an altitude of four kilometers. The explosion was so strong that a seismic wave circled the globe three times, the cloud rose almost 70 kilometers, and the flash was visible for a thousand kilometers.

The Soviet Union conducted 132 nuclear tests on the Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya between September 21, 1955 and October 24, 1990. This includes 87 explosions in the atmosphere (one explosion on the land surface; three explosions on the water surface; and 83 air bursts); three underwater explosions between 1955 and 1962; and 42 underground tests between 1964 and 1990. The underground nuclear test site, located along the Matochkin Shar strait that divides Novaya Zemlya into two main islands, is the only former Soviet nuclear test site that is presently declared under the 1963 Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT). An underground site on the southern part of the islands was deactivated in 1975. Underground tests average one or two per year between 1964 and 1990. At the Matochkin Shar test site 36 tests occurred during this period. U.S. estimates of the yields for underground tests at both sites range from 2 kt to 4 mt; the estimated yield of the largest test at the Matochkin Shar site is 2 mt. Russian data indicate that the scaled depth of burial for tests at both sites ranges from 90 to over 400 m/kt1/3 , averaging 123 m/kt1/3; the average for tests at the Matochkin Shar site is 114 m/kt 1/3.

The Bush Administation's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review suggested it may be necessary for the United States to resume testing to make new nuclear weapons and to ensure the reliability of existing ones. In a March 2002 article in Moskovsky Novosty, Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defence analyst, quoted several anonymous government sources as saying Russia, too, would prepare for nuclear tests, but would not begin weapons testing until the Americans began testing first.

In May 2002 Bush Administration officials briefed Congress on what they described as disturbing intelligence indicating that Russia was preparing to resume nuclear tests. The Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee assessment described technical activities at Novaya Zemlya that matched known Russian activities in preparation for past nuclear tests.

In late June 2002, Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev and Economic Development and Trade Minister Herman Gref visited the Arkhangelsk Region together with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The visit to the nuclear testing range on the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago was another important aspect of the working visit of the ministers to the Arkhangelsk Region. Ivanov announced that Russia was not going to restart real nuclear tests, but the President had issued an order "to maintain the testing range in working order and to develop its infrastructure." On the eve of his trip to Novaya Zemlya, Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev did not rule out the possibility of nuclear explosion test organization on Novaya Zemlya. "There is no issue of restarting of nuclear tests on the agenda yet. However, if such a task is set, it will be fulfilled," explained Rumyantsev.

When the governmental commission visited the testing range in June 2002 it discussed a possibility to bury nuclear waste there. Some officials of the Atomic Energy Ministry and Economic Development and Trade Ministry proposed this idea, saying that this may be a normal commercial project. Initially, it is planned to bury liquid and solid wastes of the 190 nuclear submarines discarded by the Defense Ministry in the wells drilled in rocks of the archipelago. After that it is planned to bury waste of nuclear stations, including stations from other countries, in the same way. The Atomic Energy Minister stated that he was against such an idea.Defense Minister Ivanov is also averse to the project for construction of a nuclear waste storage facility on Novaya Zemlya.

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Page last modified: 25-08-2021 17:17:37 ZULU