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Despatch 2 from the CTBT Integrated Field Exercise in Arcania

Rebecca Johnson, 10 September 2008

As the on-site inspection of the former Arcanian test site entered its second week, the Inspection Team (IT) from the CTBT Organization has begun to narrow down its search for evidence on whether or not Arcania conducted a nuclear weapon explosion last month in violation of its obligations as a state party to the treaty.

Despite the atrocious weather that delayed the helicopter overflights and some field work, the CTBT on-site inspection has sent teams into the designated inspection area every day. As part of its generous support of IFE08, Kazakhstan's Ministry of Emergency Situations has provided a helicopter and pilots. As lashing rain gave way to sunny days with a strong gusty wind, the overflights were able to get started. Each overflight has to be meticulously planned and agreed with the Inspected State Party. True to their role, the Arcanian representatives are being very awkward, restricting access to certain areas for reasons, they say, of "national security".

Every aspect of this OSI field exercise must be done in accordance with the treaty and its verification protocol. In addition, an on-site inspection test manual has been painstakingly negotiated by signatories to the treaty in Vienna. Where the finalized text of the treaty and its protocol are regarded as the legal basis for the inspections, the manual sets out the agreed procedures and is still subject to revision. In addition to testing out the technologies, techniques and procedures for on-site inspections under the CTBT, an important purpose of this integrated exercise is to test if the manual's provisions are appropriate for the field, including whether the negotiators have achieved a practical balance between the rights, responsibilities and needs of the inspection team and of the inspected state party.

Here on the Kazakhstan steppes, we are experiencing a strange mixture of reality and fiction. The reality is that this beautiful, bleak landscape is pitted with craters, shells of buildings and debris from atmospheric tests conducted between 1949 and 1963. There are also boreholes from decades of underground nuclear explosions. After a series of local protests by the Kazakh Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, the Soviet Union stopped nuclear testing at the Semipalatinsk site in 1989, and in 1991 declared a moratorium on further tests. The French and then the United States followed with their own moratoria, paving the way for the CTBT to be negotiated from 1994-1996. In the real world, this treaty has not yet entered into force, despite attracting 179 signatories and 144 ratifications.

In this integrated field exercise, the scenario assumes that the treaty has entered into force, the verification regime is up and running, and a seismic event in Arcania's former test site has caused sufficient suspicion for an inspection to be launched. During their first week, the inspectors used a variety of techniques - mainly seismic and radionuclide monitoring - to build up a general picture. No aftershocks were detected relevant to an earthquake in this area, the justification the Arcanians gave for the seismic signals detected by the International Monitoring System on August 22. Some radiation hotspots have been identified, Most of these appear to relate to pre-CTBT nuclear tests, so the inspectors are narrowing down where they want to have a closer look.

Attention to health and safety is extremely high. Everyone at base camp has a dosimeter, which we are instructed to wear at all times. In addition, we must don personal protective equipment if we undertake any fieldwork in the test site, including masks if soil or vegetation are to be disturbed by sampling. A local health physicist familiar with the Semipalatinsk conditions accompanies the away teams, in case their is a problem. When the teams return to base camp all personnel and equipment are subjected to rigorous checks by radiologically-trained health workers at the decontamination tent before being allowed back into the camp. So far, so good.

Having finally managed to conduct some visual surveys after the weather improved sufficiently for the helicopter to take off, the Inspection Team followed up with requests to fly over the inspection area with sensitive equipment to measure for gamma radiation. After several rounds of negotiations between the leadership of the inspection team and the Arcanian representatives, the gamma flights were allowed over the 'no fly zone' but the Inspection Team members were forbidden to take cameras or binoculars. At one point there was even talk of fixing blinds to all the windows so that the helicopter's occupants would not be able to look outside at all. Pragmatism prevailed however, not least because a bumpy ride was expected, and a helicopter ride with blacked-out windows is no fun for anyone. As an observer along for one of the gamma-inspection flights, I was especially grateful to be able to gaze out of the windows as flat plains and rocky hills undulated below, occasionally disturbing small herds of animals.

The integrated field exercise will reach its half-way point on September 13. The equipment seems to have performed well for the most part, but much of it still needs to be further tested and evaluated. Drawn from over 30 countries, the inspection team, led by Wang Jun, has never worked together like this before, and although there have been field exercises to test specific types of equipment, this is the first time that the CTBTO's Provisional Technical Secretariat has tried to pull together the range of technologies into a month-long integrated exercise in real test site conditions. Fascinating, therefore, to see the human dynamics that would be so important to the success of an on-site inspection.

When the OSI provisions for the treaty were being negotiated in Geneva, it was thought that they were unlikely ever to be evoked. And yet it was still necessary to get them right: to achieve the right balance between what was sufficient to ensure that noncompliance would be detected and what was politically bearable for the states parties who might one day find themselves the subject of an inspection request. As demonstrated by its detection and identification of the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006, the International Monitoring System is now sufficiently comprehensive and sensitive to act as a major deterrent to cheating, since the likelihood of getting caught is very high. But deterrence doesn't always work. On-site inspections may be very rare, but they have to be robust and rigorous enough to provide confidence that treaty violations will be caught. Otherwise, it could be too tempting for someone to cheat and hope to brazen it out by claiming some other source for any seismic signals or radionuclides detected by the IMS. This integrated field exercise is therefore taking place at a multiple interface between verification politics and technology, theory and practice, fact and fiction.

As night falls and myriads of stars fill the black sky, I am struck by the poignancy of being here at one of the world's most heavily-used test sites for the purposes of testing inspections technologies intended to ensure that no-one ever conducts another nuclear explosion. One Russian participant pondered over lunch that in the Cold War he had come to Semipalatinsk to participate in testing nuclear weapons because he believed they were necessary for peace... and now he is here again in order to test treaty verification capabilities because he believes the CTBT, as one of the necessary steps for nuclear disarmament, is vital for peace.

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