Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov yesterday suggested that the recent U.S. media charges that Russia might have conducted a covert nuclear test on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya last week were connected with the U.S. Senate debate over ratification of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. (Russian agencies, September 2) A number of monitoring stations around the world had detected a suspicious "seismic event" on August 16 located near a known Russian nuclear test site on the island, and the U.S., Norway, and Finland asked the Russians for an explanation. The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry denied any activity at the test site and said that the event was a tremor in the earth’s crust under the Kara Sea. (Russian agencies, August 29)
Novaya Zemlya was the site of Russia’s last acknowledged nuclear test — an underground blast on October 24, 1990 — and the test facility is being kept in readiness should the Russian leadership decide to resume testing. Just last month Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov led a team of military and civilian experts to inspect the site. (Russian agencies, July 29) In March 1996, American officials received similar suspicious satellite and seismic intelligence, which led some to suspect the Russians might have conducted a nuclear test on the island at that time. Again, top Russian officials denied that they had broken the testing moratorium. (Western media, March 17-18, 1996)
However, an Atomic Energy Ministry official later admitted that Russia had in fact conducted a so-called "hydrodynamic" test — an explosive test involving a nuclear weapon or device that produces no nuclear yield — at the Novaya Zemlya site early in 1996. And although last week’s event might well prove to have been an undersea earthquake, a statement from the Atomic Energy Ministry hinted at further hydrodynamic testing. It said that the work at the Novaya Zemlya site is being conducted in accordance with the as yet unratified test ban treaty and "is not accompanied by nuclear energy emissions." It adds that no such work was being conducted at the time of the "seismic event." (RIA Novosti, August 29)
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