In recent years, Russia, the United States, and China have undertaken significant expansions and upgrades at their respective nuclear test sites, as revealed by satellite images. These developments come amidst escalating tensions among the world’s major nuclear powers, although there is no direct evidence suggesting an imminent nuclear test by any of these countries. The images, provided by Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in military nonproliferation studies, depict expansions at nuclear test sites operated by China in Xinjiang, Russia in the Arctic Ocean, and the United States in the Nevada desert.
The satellite images, spanning the past three to five years, unveil the construction of new tunnels under mountains, the development of new infrastructure, including roads and storage facilities, and increased vehicular activity at these sites. While none of these nations have conducted underground nuclear tests since the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996, concerns are rising that they may be considering a return to such testing.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a former intelligence analyst, shares the belief that these countries are not only modernizing their nuclear arsenals but also preparing for potential tests. Russia, for instance, has ratified the treaty but has recently indicated its willingness to conduct tests if provoked by the U.S.
These expansions raise concerns of a competitive race to modernize nuclear testing infrastructure, exacerbating mistrust between Washington and the authoritarian governments of Russia and China. However, an actual armed conflict is not seen as imminent.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a prominent nuclear watchdog group, recently moved its Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the thinly veiled threats of nuclear weapon use as significant contributors to the heightened risk of global catastrophe.
The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has called on key countries to ratify the international treaty banning nuclear experiments for both peaceful and military purposes. This appeal comes amid a backdrop of rising global mistrust and increasing stockpiles of nuclear weapons worldwide.
Analysts suggest that Russia’s underperformance in the Ukraine conflict could be a driving factor behind its potential consideration of nuclear tests. However, it’s important to note that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin holds the ultimate decision-making authority in this regard.
In Russia, the Novaya Zemlya test site in the Arctic Ocean archipelago has seen extensive construction and increased activity in recent years, indicating possible preparations for nuclear testing. Similarly, the Chinese nuclear test site in Lop Nur, Western China, has shown the excavation of a new underground tunnel and increased construction activity.
The U.S., while officially not conducting nuclear tests since 1992, has expanded its underground facility, the U1a complex, at the Nevada National Security Site. This expansion is for “subcritical” nuclear experiments, aimed at ensuring the reliability of existing weapons without full-scale testing.
It’s worth noting that the International Monitoring System (IMS), a network of 337 facilities worldwide, can detect major underground nuclear tests.
In summary, the recent expansions and developments at nuclear test sites in Russia, the United States, and China raise concerns about the potential resumption of nuclear testing and the subsequent arms race. While there is no immediate evidence of imminent testing, the international community is closely monitoring these developments due to the risks they pose to global stability and security.
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