23 September 2008

Testing the test ban treaty: Week three of the CTBTO inspection exercise in Kazakhstan

Andreas Persbo

Andreas Persbo

A lawyer, Persbo is the executive director of VERTIC. He focuses on the implementation of the...


It's Wednesday, September 17, and more than two weeks have elapsed since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) began its mock inspection exercise in Kazakhstan. A quick refresher on the particulars of the exercise: In August, the CTBTO's International Monitoring System detected seismic signals from underground shocks that looked as if they might have come from a clandestine nuclear test in the vast territory of Arcania, a fictional Central Asian republic where more than 20 nuclear weapons test explosions had been openly conducted during the Cold War. Arcania explained the event as a "shallow, natural earthquake" some 20 kilometers away from the epicenter estimated by the International Data Center. Rejecting this explanation, one of Arcania's neighbors, Fiducia, put in a formal request to the CTBTO for an on-site inspection to determine whether this event was a nuclear explosion in violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Since we're a couple of weeks into the exercise, some people thought we would have made more progress by now. But as the inspection leader, Wang Jun, hunkers over the situation maps laid out on a table in his dimly lit command tent, the inspection team can't yet see the finish line. There's too much ground to cover, and there are still too few good pieces of verification data available to guide us toward a solution.

Overall, the inspection has gone well, but its execution hasn't been without problems. The harsh weather conditions and energy-hungry equipment are putting a strain on two struggling generators. The equipment was meant to be fuelled with European high-octane fuel, but the gasoline supplied by the Arcanian authorities is much dirtier, made for their rough and unforgiving steppe, not for European motorways.

As a result, power outages have started to occur, and team members have been forced to endure moments of darkness and cold. Hot water is available for only five hours per day, and heat in the tents is intermittent throughout the long, cold nights. To make matters worse, the rain has returned, and with it, a strong, freezing wind. The weather forecast talks of snow. Luckily, the inspection data, stored in the Field Information Management System (FIMS), is backed up on several servers, allowing all critical functions to survive without external power for hours.

Simply put, the system cannot fail, as the 40-person inspection team is feeding it with a lot of information--the seismic aftershock monitoring team has transmitted 330 gigabytes of waveform data; the radionuclide laboratories have entered the results of sampling and measurement missions; and visual observations and photographs are being carefully logged. All of this allows the FIMS to combine data in many ways.

The inspection team is currently in what's known as the "continuation phase" of the on-site inspection, meaning that the inspectors have more tools at their disposal. For instance, the team is now equipped to do magnetic surveys both from the air and ground. It also has ground-penetrating radar, enabling it to "see" any large cavities that might have formed during an underground nuclear test.

However, nothing is giving the team leader a clear indication as to where he should focus his search. The waveform and radionuclide data doesn't add up, so he feels as though he's looking at a puzzle where some of the pieces don't belong. What's missing? Could Arcania actually be telling the truth? Is that why his sensors are producing nothing of value?

Nonetheless, the inspection leader remains suspicious. Arcania isn't giving him access to a section of the inspection area. They first declared that a large area was considered too dangerous to enter because of unexploded munitions from a recent artillery drill. He didn't question that, and after a week or so, the Arcanian military did give him access to this area--most of it anyway. A small patch of land, 2-by-2 kilometers, still has been declared a "restricted access site," which is Arcania's right. But although he cannot enter the zone, the team leader can use active seismic technologies to detect any cavity formed by a nuclear explosion underneath it.

And there seems to be something there. His team isn't allowed to take photographs from certain angles, nor are they allowed to look into the area with binoculars. It's all very suspicious. The team leader has already argued with the Arcanian representatives about these limitations; at one point, he angrily left the daily 5:30 p.m. meeting between the inspection team and Arcanian officials, threatening to call of the entire inspection. A conference call with the CTBTO's director general soothed his nerves, and the inspection continued.

Outside of the restricted area, the inspectors have already discovered several anomalies, which they summarized in their progress inspection report (PIR). For example, they observed trucks and trailers near a construction site and a borehole. These trucks later moved away. At a different location, they witnessed a plowed area, but no agricultural activity. Were these actions an attempt to hide evidence?

They also saw an orange trailer that had no obvious purpose at a remote location, and a new concrete platform of about 4 meters in diameter covering a borehole. The team wasn't able to detect radionuclides indicative of a possible nuclear explosion, but an underground test doesn't necessarily vent such materials. Plus, analysis of some samples is still ongoing. But because at this point the evidence is mainly circumstantial, the team leader knows that Arcania's chief representative will argue that the inspectors can go home and that there's nothing to be found.

While the PIR was being filed, though, the inspection team collected additional seismic data that could indicate a nuclear test. On September 10, the seismic survey identified nine seismic events, located at two different sites in the inspection area. A day later, a further 13 events were detected. What caused them? Arcanian officials argue that these events are aftershocks of an earthquake, but the inspectors remain unconvinced.

The inspectors hope that a range of additional techniques will enable them to pinpoint the cause of the events. And because the CTBTO's Executive Council believe that the inspectors provided sufficient evidence, it gave them more time to investigate. In the real world, the initial inspection period and continuation period will last 30 days each, with a possible 10-day extension. Here in fictional Arcania, the compressed timeframe covers just 23 days, leaving the inspection team with precious little time to complete their work.

Therefore, the team leader has been reluctant to focus his search too much. The 1,000-square-kilometer search area remains in effect, and Arcanian authorities have already started to ask why certain areas cannot be given back to them. Rights and obligations have been argued and counter-argued with little gain.

Meanwhile, more conflicting data continues to flow in through FIMS. On September 17, a visual observation team found a recently covered borehole among beer and vodka bottles, the remains of a burnt down drill rig, and a March 2008 foreign newspaper. Two days earlier, a team equipped with cesium magnetometers found a large metallic concentration under an unused borehole, just 1,800 meters south of a live test location. The operator of the rig, a young professional, had whispered to the escorts, "I don't know what you put down there, but it made my instruments go off the scale."

Arcanian officials are tight-lipped. After all, they did test weapons here before signing the CTBT. There are still legacy issues with sampling, measuring, and even observation of the site. The team leader sighs, turns off his lamp, and leaves for dinner. Maybe tomorrow will bring some answers.