In a separate network of underground tunnels about 4800 km away, in the northern Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, in the Arctic Circle, Russia conducts its own experiments, designed to model the chemical and physical actions that occur in the period preceding nuclear explosion, without actually causing it.
Both countries are using experiments at both sites to ensure that their nuclear arsenals remain viable, but are conducted in secret. And so they gave rise to suspicions and accusations that they would violate 1996 World Treaty designed to thwart innovations in nuclear weapons by preventing any nuclear explosion.
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This article was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, non-partisan and non-profit media organizations.
The experiments being designed to closely simulate these explosions, 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean in 2016 called "the spirit and the letter" of the treaty ", thus undermining its impact as a measure of nuclear disarmament".
Washington rejected this claim, but on May 29, the Trump administration abruptly brought similar accusations against Russia, when a top secret official was involved in transgressing the test.
The irony of the recent charge is that it comes at a time when the National Nuclear Safety Administration of the US Department of Energy is about to speed up the pace of complex and expensive nuclear simulation experiments in the country, the Center for Public Integrity has learned. The frequency will increase from an annual average of one and a half years to two and possibly three per year, thanks to a budget injection of $ 1 billion over ten years to expand and improve the Nevada underground site.
In making this new allegation, the administration did not specify what Russia was doing and its statement contained a qualifier, which made it a claim of direct fraud. "The United States believes that Russia probably does not respect the moratorium on nuclear testing in a manner consistent with the zero-yield standard," said General Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, when From a weapons forum on May 29 check at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. "Our understanding of the development of nuclear weapons suggests to us that Russia's testing activities will help improve its nuclear weapons capabilities", I added. "The United States, on the other hand, has given up these benefits by maintaining a zero return standard."
On June 13, the Defense Intelligence Agency (Defense Intelligence Agency) again submitted its request, issuing a stronger statement in response to questions regarding Ashley's remarks. He said that "the US government, including the intelligence community, felt that Russia had conducted nuclear tests that had generated nuclear efficiency."
The White House, The State Department and the Pentagon have since refused to provide details or corroborating evidence. Ashley's claim that the US, in its own experiments, has "waived" any benefits for its nuclear arsenal appears to be contradicted by publicly available information. planning documents for Nevada test facility upgrades, which indicates that new equipment and increased workload will provide "vital data to support future storage options ".
Ashley has returned to several sources, including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, to an international agency based in Vienna, which monitors more than 300 sites around the world using seismic sensors designed to detect even small nuclear yields at sites like Novaya Zemlya.
Kirsten Gregorich Hansen, spokeswoman for the organization, said in an email two days after Ashley's statement that the agency had not observed anything that would indicate that Russia had carried out a test to obtain a nuclear output.
Ashley's request has also been challenged by independent control control experts, including Jeffrey Lewis, director of the non-proliferation program for East Asia at the James Martin Center for Studies. Monterey, California, Non-Proliferation, and Associate Investigator Anne Pellegrino.
They have been monitoring the satellite images of the Russian site for a long time and say nothing. Russia has recently started new activities on its experimental site. The images show that a tunnel in the steep cliff of the site appeared in 2013; then, two years later, four rectangular buildings were erected at the opposite end of the complex, near the steep and sometimes winding road which is the only visible access road.
But they said they have not detected any external changes since 2015. "Some people in the US intelligence community have made the same claim since the late 1990s," Lewis wrote in an e-mail. "There has never been any evidence provided to prove it."
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Frank von Hippel, physicist and professor at Princeton, who has written extensively on nuclear testing, similarly stated that the United States used to make vague allegations of Russian fraud. I pointed to claims In May 2002, the Bush administration announced that Russia was preparing to undergo inappropriate tests in Novaya Zemlya, based on the delivery of some cans in this area. No evidence in support of the claim has ever been presented publicly, he said, and the dispute has disappeared.
In Moscow, a statement issued by the Russian State Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the accusation "unfounded" and speculated that the allegation was designed to justify the eventual resumption of tests. nuclear explosives.
President Bill Clinton signed the test ban treaty in 1996, but the Senate failed to ratify it by a vote of 48 to 51. The country agreed to abide by a moratorium on nuclear testing. Russia has similarly agreed to a moratorium; he even ratified the treaty in 2000, a year after Vladimir Putin ordered the resumption of experiments in Novaya Zemlya.
The experiments in question are called subcritical tests, because when the fissile material neutrons interact with each other sufficiently abruptly to trigger an autonomous nuclear reaction, they reach a critical state. Subcritical experiments displace plutonium to a critical state without suppressing the nuclear charge.
They are conducted in bullet-sized steel vessels, while high-speed cameras record the reaction of plutonium at intervals of a few fractions of a second, and then transmit the results to computers that extrapolate what's going on. they have seen to analyze the potential performance of nuclear weapons. drawings.
The upgrade of the test site in Nevada aims to add a faster and more accurate photo, providing scientists with a more accurate insight into the reaction of plutonium during its voluntary implosion early in the year. an explosion, as well as a better overview of the latest stages of the explosion. This new feature is technically called "Enhanced Capabilities for Sub-Critical Experiments", but nicknamed "Scorpius" because of the tailspot constellation that emits more X-rays than any other source on earth. except the Sun.
The upgrade began under the Obama administration in 2014, after scientific advisers from the weapons program suggested new methods for analyzing plutonium behavior. The Trump administration has accelerated the construction of modernized facilities by 2025 and has been used for the next 30 years, according to documents from the National Nuclear Security Administration.
"These capabilities will help train the next generation of experimenters and weapon designers, thus strengthening our deterrence for decades," said Dave Funk, a chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who is responsible for the experiments. sub-critical upgrades on the Nevada site. in one internal lab publication who presented his work. Their usefulness has been controversial. Some US officials said the data could not be used to improve the lethality of US warheads and that non-nuclear-weapon states could not.
Those involved in the Prohibition of Trials and in the 1996 Treaties: the secret that gave rise to accusations and countermeasures was deliberately orchestrated by the United States and Russia, who resisted Efforts made at the time by Princeton & # 39; s von Hippel and others to include terms in the treaty requiring inspections of such experiments and forcing them above ground. The two countries also declined the voluntary mutual inspections suggested by the Vienna Monitoring Agency.
Jean du Preez, who led external communications and international cooperation for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization from 2009 to 2016 and is now a senior executive at the James Martin Center, said that even at the over the last decade, "my personal beliefs that the concerns (of Latin American and Caribbean countries) are valid: these types of experiences go against the spirit and the of the comprehensive ban treaty of nuclear testing and undermine the treaty. "
The organization itself would have the power to inspect the experiments and to settle any claims of fraud if the treaty had entered into force and if a significant majority of the participating countries suspected illegal testing. However, eight troubled countries – the United States, China, North Korea, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel and Pakistan – have not yet ratified it, preventing it from taking effect and preventing the organization from carrying out verification activities.
"The potential impact of low-yield testing is that it undermines support for staying in the moratorium (tests)," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the non-partisan Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "If President Trump said in response that" you have cheated, then I will withdraw, "then we could see both countries sink into important performance tests" and into new, more effective nuclear weapons designs.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, non-partisan investigative writing room located in Washington, DC. More of his reports on national security can be found right here.