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Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)

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Despatch from the CTBT On-site Inspection in Arcania

Rebecca Johnson, 6 September 2008

On August 22, the International Monitoring System (IMS) of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty Organization (CTBTO) detected seismic signals from underground shocks that looked as if they might possibly come from a clandestine nuclear test in the vast territory of Arcania, a Central Asian Republic where over 20 nuclear weapons test explosions had been openly conducted during the Cold War. Arcania explained the event as a "shallow, natural earthquake" some 20 km away from the epicentre estimated by the International Data Centre (IDC). Rejecting this explanation, one of Arcania's neighbours, Fiducia, put in a formal request to the CTBTO for an on-site inspection (OSI) to determine whether this event was a nuclear explosion, in violation of the CTBT.

To support its OSI request, Fiducia included information based its own national observations of an increase in military activities near the site and also detection of Caesium-137 a few days after the seismic event. Both Fiducia and Arcania are states parties to the CTBT, which entered into force in 20XX. Arcania says that its last nuclear explosion was conducted in 1989, but it has never joined the NPT or permitted IAEA inspections at its nuclear facilities, which it claims are solely for peaceful purposes.

This is the basic scenario of the 2008 Integrated Field Exercise (IFE08) that brought 185 people to a windswept plain in the middle of the steppes, in what used to be the Soviet Union's Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. The two primary groups were the Arcanians, otherwise known as the Inspected State Party (ISP) and the CTBTO's 39-member Inspection Team (IT). But because this was an exercise, there were also around 50 people from the actual host country, Kazakhstan, who provided all kinds of unstinting support, ranging from transport and food to emergency, fire and medical facilities, as well as an assortment of OSI exercise evaluators, observers, staff from the CTBT's Provisional Technical Secretariat and media. Arcania had refused to allow the designated representative of Fiducia, a certain Col. Ayam Aspay, to join the Inspectors.

To watch the exercise, however, there were several observers from states signatories (at their own expense), including China, France, Germany, Iran, Israel, Spain and the United Kingdom. There was also an American film crew and a few US specialists, none of whom was formally representing the US government as the Bush administration has withheld some of its funding for the establishment of the CTBT's verification regime, including inspections. The United States, which was the first country to sign in September 1996, is among the nine states whose ratification is still required before the CTBT can enter into force. China, Egypt, Iran and Israel who have also signed but not yet ratified are participating in this exercise in one capacity or other. Another non-ratifying signatory, Indonesia, does not seem to be here. India, Pakistan and North Korea have not yet signed, and so were not present at all.

The OSI exercise was officially launched on September 1st in Almaty, which doubled as Arcania's capital Utopium. That morning, the head of the Inspection Team, Wang Jun, presented the director of Arcania's Disarmament Department, Ministry of External Affairs, John Walker, with the Inspection Mandate. This had been drawn up following the decision of the CTBT's Executive Council on August 27 to agree to Fiducia's request and launch an inspection. Formally accepting the mandate but noting indignantly "that one of our neighbours is behind this unwarranted slur on our integrity and compliance with our international legal undertakings", Dr Walker gave Arcania's explanation and predicted: "if both we and the Inspection Team follow the guidance in the Treaty and Protocol we will be able to address the non-compliance concern." Noting that the area contained sites of military sensitivity and boreholes from nuclear tests prior to 1989, he also warned the Inspectors that though Arcania would cooperate fully, it would maintain its "right to protect confidential information".

Once the Inspection Team Leader had given the Arcanian delegation the CTBTO's OSI mandate, which included a list of inspectors, techniques and equipment that could be deployed, the two sides got down to business. The IT had identified an Inspection Area of 1000 sq km and presented its initial inspection plan for the first few days. Arcania immediately objected to the proposal for overflights and insisted on designating one large area a no-flight-zone and another a low flight zone. They also argued that the treaty required only one overflight, so that was all they would permit. Arcania then identified several "restricted access areas" (RAS), giving reasons ranging from national security to health and safety, such as radioactive contamination from tests conducted 20 years ago or unexploded ordinance from a recent military exercise. The IT had to negotiate around these objections and still get agreement for overflights and ground inspections that would enable it to determine whether a nuclear test had taken place. As part of the exercise scenario, it is expected that Arcanians will find many opportunities to thwart and delay the inspections planned by the CTBTO's team. Not necessarily because they are hiding a nuclear test - we don't know that yet - but because they have other secrets that they want to keep confidential. The success of the OSI will probably hinge on how successfully the IT is able to negotiate with the clever Arcanians and resolve such conflicts in order to complete its mission satisfactorily within the allocated time.

The next day in the real world, we all piled into a train bound for Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk). It travelled slowly for 21 hours past lakes and dry steppes, through villages where local women held up apples, melons, smoked fish or grilled chicken to tempt the passengers to buy their delicacies. At Semey we were met by a fleet of battered but robust buses that drove us first to the legendary Kurchatov, one of the most important closed nuclear cities of the Soviet era. There by the river were the grand houses once lived in by the USSR's most important nuclear weapons scientists; now abandoned, with weeds growing through their roofs and tennis courts. From Kurchatov we took a dusty road that turned into a track that took us deep into the Semipalatinsk test site. Just before the sun disappeared below the horizon we finally saw the white and green tents of the Base of Operations, set up a couple of kilometres outside the designated Inspection Area. Home for a while.

Despite the dark and cold, Arcania's equipment specialist, Dr Li Hua, began checking through the IT's equipment for the OSI. Time and again he found broken seals on the equipment containers, and even though the IT argued that many of these seals had been broken inside the host country, Dr Li very sternly insisted on checking that the equipment accorded with the specifications he had been given. The next day the planned overflight was postponed as the morning had to be devoted to further equipment checks and health and safety briefings. In the afternoon, teams went out to take photographs and place the first seismometers in different locations around the Inspected Area. Then the weather turned, bringing heavy rain and wind. The overflights were cancelled for a second day, though a few ground teams were sent out to install monitoring equipment and pick up data from the sensors they had placed the day before. They arrived back at the Base Camp soaked to the skin. Overnight the weather grew even worse, with lashing wind as well as rain, so the overflights were again cancelled.

How clever of the Arcanians to conduct a clandestine nuclear explosion just before the arrival of bad weather, thereby increasing the difficulties and pressure on the Inspection Team. Or did they? Did they violate their treaty obligations or are they an innocent party that suffered a small earthquake inconveniently close to their former test site and sensitive military facilities? Only the on-site inspection will be able to tell. And only if it is carried out effectively. That's why 185 people are battened down in tents in the howling winds and rains of the Kazakh plains for 25 days. Look out for the next despatch from Arcania to find out what happens next...

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