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One Last Explosion at Kazakh Test Site to Aid Arms Treaty

From : South Asians Against Nukes
September 25, 1999


URCHATOV, Kazakhstan -- Here under the desolate Degelen Mountains in the wind-swept Central Asian steppes, the Soviet Union detonated more than 400 nuclear explosions during the cold war that helped it perfect the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

If all goes well, at noon on Saturday, Sept. 25, the earth is expected to reverberate once more with the seismic shock waves of an underground blast with the force of 100 tons of TNT.

But this time, the explosion in the next-to-last tunnel of an underground maze that once crisscrossed the world's largest nuclear test range will be conventional, not nuclear. And its goal is to insure that this site will be used for war no more. Scientists say the blast will also help them identify and measure secret underground nuclear tests conducted by, say, India, Pakistan and China or by rogue states.

"North Korea is full of tunnels," said a senior Pentagon official.

Since 1994, the United States and Kazakhstan have quietly collaborated on a series of ambitious projects worth more than $170 million, financed by Washington, to help the now independent Government of President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev carry out his pledge to forswear the nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union. But this security relationship, which American officials describe as the closest they have with any former Soviet republic, is now roiled by recent disclosures of the sale of more than 30 MIG-21 fighter jets to North Korea for $8 million.

While Kazakh officials lobby to dissuade Washington from imposing economic sanctions that would cost their country $75 million in annual foreign aid and jeopardize the close security ties, scientists here at the Semipalatinsk test range, roughly the size of Indiana, are struggling to stop impoverished Kazakh scavengers from stealing copper and other precious minerals from the radioactive tunnels. A large amount of irradiated copper was sold to China by a private Kazakh company three years ago, prompting a protest from Beijing, Kazakh officials said.

"We've told people in surrounding villages a hundred times how dangerous it is to touch this metal, but what can we do when people are hungry?" said Murat Akhmetov, director of the Institute of Radiation, Safety and Ecology in Kurchatov, the once secret nuclear city of 30,000 which has shrunk to one third its former size. "Scavenging irradiated copper is as self-defeating as selling MIG's to rogue states."

The extraordinary "calibration" experiment scheduled for Saturday is the second of three tests intended to accompany the closing and sealing of the last of 181 tunnels here at the Degelen Mountains, where the Soviet Union conducted hundreds of underground blasts after atmospheric testing was banned in 1963.

Hundreds of people have been involved in preparing for Omega 2, as the blast is known. In addition to implanting seismic monitors in a tunnel on the eastern side of the mountain range and its drift, Kazakh and American scientists painted rocks and joints inside the tunnels bright red, green, yellow and white.

Vladimir Kovalev, director of the Degelen Mountain complex, said the paint will enable scientists to assess how the blast shatters, moves and distributes the rocks.

"You are standing in one of only 15 'clean' tunnels where nuclear tests were not conducted," said Dr. Kovalev, as he walked carefully through a part of the tunnel that will soon become rubble.

More than five miles of copper-lined cable was laid to provide power to the electronic sensors and monitors buried deep inside the shafts. Sandbags were placed along the tunnel walls to protect the instruments from the blast's full force.

Near the end of the tunnel, the scientists scooped out a huge cavity some 20 feet in diameter that now holds the explosives and the detonation charge. The test chamber's floor has been painted blood red.

Walking through these vast underground passageways, whose multi-colored coats of paint are illuminated by slightly iridescent lamps affixed to the rock walls, is like exploring a surreal mine shaft decorated by a mad finger painter. The air is dank and moldy. The railway track that carried equipment and construction materials deep inside the mountain is now covered with gravel and loose rock.

"It was tough for us at first to do this work," said Dr. Kovalev, who came to Kurchatov 30 years ago to build these channels of death. "It's not psychologically easy to destroy what you helped build."

But a week before the blast, Dr. Kovalev supervised the loading of 100 tons of chemical explosives into the test chamber. The instruments placed in 11 bore holes that were dug from or near the chamber into a lower tunnel, the drift, were re-checked. The video cameras situated just inside the tunnel portals, or openings, were switched on to ensure that they, too, functioned properly.

On "D-Day," or Detonation Day, police and army units sent to aid the hundreds of engineers, scientists, technicians and guards who prepared for this test will fan out through the site, insuring that the area immediately around the tunnel is clear of people except the scientists and security guards charged with detonating the explosives and monitoring the test from stationary and mobile control centers at designated control points.

For this test, as for the first one, called Omega 1, at another tunnel in August 1998, scientists from Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center, their 20 American counterparts -- including participants from the United States nuclear test site at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Nevada and from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University -- as well as observers from Russia and France, will be on hand to help monitor or interpret test results.

Given the low labor costs here, American and Kazakh scientists agreed that conducting similar tests at the Nevada site would cost 10 times as much as the $2.3 million that these calibration tests are expected to cost.

Luke Kluchko, a Pentagon program manager for the test, wrote in an in-house Defense Department newsletter that the last Omega test produced high-quality seismic records as far as 3,700 miles away. Yuri Cherepnin, director general of the National Nuclear Center, where some 2,000 former Kazakh nuclear scientists and technicians now work on nonproliferation, said he expected seismic stations in the same range as those in the Omega test to be able to detect the Saturday blast.

The "calibration" experiment is rooted in a series of Kazakh-American agreements signed in 1994 to help Kazakhstan get rid of not only its weapons of mass destruction, but also the infrastructure that supported them. Since then, Kazakh and American officials have quietly removed more than a thousand nuclear weapons, closed the giant missile silos once occupied by SS-18 Mirved Soviet ICBM's, converted key biological weapons production centers, and spirited more than 1,300 pounds of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium out of the country. Other major projects are underway or being planned.

"Kazakhstan has taken unprecedented steps to advance nonproliferation and become a model of arms control for Central Asia and other regions," said Vladimir S. Shkolnik, the Minister of Science, a Russian physicist and veteran of the old Soviet nuclear program here.

As part of that effort, Washington agreed in October 1995 to spend $20 million blowing up and sealing the 181 horizontal tunnels, each a mile and a half long on average, as well as numerous vertical bore holes, each 1,000 to 1,650 feet deep, that are situated on the Balapan test site, near the granite-filled Degelen Mountains, whose hard rock geology made them perfect for underground weapons tests. So far, 179 tunnels have been blasted and sealed.

In closing the tunnels in which the Soviets conducted hundreds of tests, Washington sensed opportunity. So did the international agency created to monitor compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Washington pledged an extra $1.2 million for the first two calibration experiments in the last remaining tunnels. The independent monitors of the test ban treaty, whose Vienna based organization is affiliated with the United Nations, provided another $80,000 to see whether an international team of inspectors who are expected to arrive at test site nine days after the blast will be able to identify its precise location.

Don A. Linger, a deputy for technical programs at the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency outside Washington, said the measurements from the tests would enable seismic stations throughout the world to "calibrate" their equipment and help scientists distinguish between a natural event, like an earthquake, and a bomb test.

The distinction is not always obvious, he added, noting that seismologists were divided, say, over what kind of nuclear test India conducted last year, as well as its strength.

Dr. Cherepnin said he hoped that the United States and other observers would eventually support research to measure contamination levels at this sprawling test range. Soil samples taken at different areas of the test range, he said, "show the existence of plutonium residues that exceed the acknowledged levels by 100 times." But Kazakhstan, he added, cannot afford to conduct such tests.

While the precise levels of contamination have not been measured, Kazakh scientists are painfully aware of some of the adverse health and environmental effects of some four decades of nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk region, the first decade of which were conducted above ground.

According to a 1998 United Nations report, much of the test site is contaminated by cesium 137 and strontium 90. Local studies attribute several lethal and debilitating illnesses, including high rates of cancer, to radiation from the tests. Kazakhstan estimates that 1.2 million people in and around the test site received above normal doses of radiation.

But the United Nations team that visited here last year had difficulty distinguishing between adverse health effects produced by the tests, which was limited to underground explosions after 1963, and those stemming from the impoverishment of Kurchatov and other towns and villages in the Semipalatinsk area due to the end of nuclear testing in 1991. Half the buildings in Kurchatov, named for the father of the Soviet atomic bomb, now stand abandoned or crumbling. The once elegant, tree-lined streets are filled with potholes and buckled pavement. For much of the harsh winter, there is neither reliable heat nor electricity.

Given this region's dependence on foreign assistance and technical cooperation with the West, Kazakh scientists here were particularly furious about recent disclosures that some senior Kazakh officials either approved or failed to stop the sale of 30-year-old Soviet jet fighters to North Korea.

"It is a freaky accident that does not reflect Government policy," said Dr. Shkolnik, the science minister, who noted that two senior officials had lost their jobs over the incident. "But it has undoubtedly hurt our country's image. I hope it will not jeopardize tests like these and the close cooperation that benefit both Kazakhstan and America."

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