Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Masakatsu Ota  |  16 November, 2023

Three Scorpions in a Bottle? Disturbing Movements at Nuclear Test Sites in Russia, China and US

Image: AI-generated/

“(I)f the United States conducts tests, then we will. No one should have dangerous illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed.”

On February 21, 2023, which marked almost one year anniversary since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the State Duma in Moscow. Above his head, the country's emblem, a huge double-headed eagle, looked down on the audience.

During the entire speech, Putin once again revealed his hostility towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At the same time, he rebelled against the international nuclear order that had been established under the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union since the Cold War era.

This is because he declared a ``suspension'' of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the only remaining bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty between the United States and Russia. The threat of resuming nuclear tests could also be seen as a declaration of intent to oppose the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.

In fact, there were disturbing movements even before beginning of the war of aggression.

“In Russia, we see enormous construction at the main support base associated with nuclear testing, including construction of a very large building. We know that the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited that construction on his recent trip to Novaya Zemlya,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury School of International Studies at Monterey.

He is one of the world's leading nuclear experts who have spent many years tracking the movements of nuclear-related facilities around the world, including North Korea, using commercial satellite images.

As he said, “What we have seen is a gradual increase in the activity at the site,” Novaya Zemlya is a Russian island in the Arctic Ocean. Approximately 130 nuclear tests were conducted during the Soviet era, and in 1961 the largest hydrogen bomb in history, more than 3,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, exploded in the sky.

“There is significant construction ongoing not seen since the end of nuclear testing in the 1990s,” Lewis emphasized. Indeed, in the satellite image taken on June 22 of this year, many large trucks, construction cranes, and shipping containers can be seen, and the difference from the image taken two years ago is obvious.

According to Lewis, at least two buildings are under construction in the administrative and residential areas of the nuclear test site. Also, as he said, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that Shoigu inspected Novaya Zemlya on August 12th.

Putin, who continues his long-term war of attrition with Ukraine, may eventually try to intimidate NATO, which is prepared to provide long-term support, by forcing a nuclear test and breaking its will – these type of speculation has been heard among western nations’ officials and experts. Meanwhile, Russia is steadily preparing to resume nuclear tests, which have been sealed off for more than 30 years, at any time at the dictator's command.

Russia quite recently withdrew from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty(CTBT)right after Putin had called for the Federal Assembly to do so, spurring concerns in the international community.

“(Russian withdrawal from the CTBT) would set back the very popular and heretofore very successful CTBT regime,” Daryl Kimball, a head of the long-established American think tank Arms Control Association, recently wrote in his journal.

Further disturbing developments can be observed in China, which has continued to deepen its ties with Russia even after the war began.

“At China’s Lop Nor nuclear test site, there is also significant activity. The main administrative and support area at Lop Nor has a number of ongoing construction projects. At the site with horizontal tunnels, excavation at a large underground tunnel has continued in recent years, either to support subcritical nuclear experiments or to maintain readiness to resume nuclear testing.”

Lewis analyzes satellite images that show that China has not ruled out resuming nuclear tests and is making preparations.

China has not yet ratified the CTBT, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1996. Also, China conducted 45 nuclear tests, which is about 23 times less than that of the United States. For this reason, some experts, including Lewis, believe that past test data alone is insufficient for the actual deployment of new nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, it appears that attention needs to be paid not only to China and Russia but also to the United States. It was reported that resuming nuclear tests was considered during the Trump administration, and the option of carrying out nuclear tests in a short preparation period of at least six months was adopted in order to intimidate an enemy country if the situation became necessary. The United States has not yet ratified the CTBT, either.

Lewis also warned that expansion work is underway at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in the western United States for the purpose of subcritical nuclear tests.

“Mutual suspicions are being used by advocates in all three countries who would wish to resume the explosive testing of nuclear weapons. If one country explodes a nuclear weapon, the other two are likely to follow suit. A resumption of nuclear explosive testing by the three big nuclear powers would allow all three to resume development of new nuclear weapons and accelerate the arms race among the three.”

Seventy years ago, Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” described the United States, which became the first in human history to acquire nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union, which followed in its footsteps like; “Two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”

Now, with the addition of a new scorpion, China, the increasingly distorted nuclear order is at a critical crossroads.


Related articles:

Four nuclear myths (3-minute read)

Powerful nuclear norms trump tinkering with treaties (3-minute read)

Japan's nuclear choices after Ukraine: Interview with Masakatsu Ota (1:05:06)

Masakatsu Ota is a senior editorial writer at Kyodo News, Visiting Professor at Waseda University and author of nine Japanese books on nuclear and security issues, including US-Japan ‘Nuclear’ Alliance and Great Divergence of the Nuclear Age