Libmonster ID: BY-1531
Author(s) of the publication: Vladimir BOCHAROV, Dr. Sc. (Tech.)

by Vladimir BOCHAROV, Dr. Sc. (Tech.), Institute of Strategic Stability of "Rosatom" State Atomic Energy Corporation, Vera PARAFONOVA, journalist

The nuclear test range on the Novaya Zemlya islands, which has become a property of the Russian Federation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and which has obtained a status of the Central Testing Ground, marked its 55th anniversary in September 2009. Created 5 years after the explosion of the first national atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, in Kazakh steppes near Semipalatinsk, it has contributed greatly to the improvement of nuclear weapons and ensuring security of our Motherland.



The weapon of an unprecedented destructive force, developed in 1949, caused heated debates on the role of the Navy, in the conditions of operations yet not studied. In this very intricate situation Nikolai Kuznetsov, First Deputy Minister of Defense and Commander-in-Chief of the USSR Navy submitted a report on a new plan of military shipbuilding on March 31, 1954. The plan envisaged equipping of the Navy with nuclear weapons, and it also called for securing stability of future facilities against a destructive action.

By that time, works on creation of a nuclear warhead for the T-5* torpedo were over, and the problem of its testing was discussed at the design department of the KB-11 top secret nuclear center located in the city of Sarov, Nizhni Novgorod Region** (today the All-Russia Research Institute of Experimental Physics or VNIIEF), headed by Nikolai Dukhov, Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Specialists had to make certain not only of the efficiency of the charge and to assess its power, but also to study a destructive effect of an underwater explosion in marine conditions. The "onshore" Semipalatinsk testing ground*** could not do for this purpose. Therefore, a "marine" test range was to be found. The whole of north-eastern coast of the Soviet Union, from the Pacific Ocean to the Kola Peninsula, was studied for construction of such test range. But no suitable place was found on the mainland. Then it was decided to examine the Novaya Zemlya islands.

See: V. Lukyanov, "A 'Nuclear Hermitage' at Sarov", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2009.--Ed.

** See: A. Rodionov et. al., "Smithery of Underwater Weapons", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2004.--Ed.

*** See: R. Petrov, "At the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site", Science in Russia. No. 1, 1995.--Ed.

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Map of the Novaya Zemlya test range: A-the zone of underwater and surface tests; B-the zone of tests in tunnels; C-the zone of nuclear tests in the air.

Underwater test of T-5 torpedo with a nuclear charge on September 21, 1955.

This arctic archipelago is a unique place on the planet with the ice-free Barents Sea, on one side, and the Kara Sea practically always icebound, on the other hand. Neither severe frost and fierce winds, nor polar nights and glaciers alternating with tundra were of decisive importance in making the choice. The following two factors became decisive in the choice of a place for the future test range, namely, sparse population and remoteness from villages and cities: 250 km from Amderma, 400 km from Naryan Mar, 500 km from Vorkuta, 900 km from Murmansk, and 1,000 km from Archangelsk.

In accordance with the survey results, the state commission headed by Rear-Admiral Nikolai Sergeev (later on Admiral and Chief of the General Headquarters of the USSR Navy) recommended to locate the test range in the Belushya camp, the airport in the Rogachevo settlement on the gulf coast of the same name, and the battlefield in the Chernaya Bay, optimally fit for such tests. You can get there through a narrow passage protected by an island on the west. The high rocky coasts separate it from the open space of the Barents Sea. The bay of approximately 70 km" area resembles a bottle with a neck long 1.5 km wide and about 20 km long. The insignificant water level difference (less than 1 m) during tides served as an advantage in the choice, while a relatively small depth of the water area, 35 m on the average and 70 m in the deepest place, was its disadvantage.

On September 17, 1954, the General Headquarters of the Navy passed instructions on the construction of a test range there. This date is considered its date of birth.

The construction was entrusted to Spetsstroi-700, an organization established specially for this purpose. Soon the settlements of Belushya Guba, Rogachevo and Severny appeared in this uninhabited area as well as a command control center of aerial tests in the Gribovaya Bay, and battlefields in the Chernaya Bay and on the Sukhoi Nos Peninsula. "...Those who were the first to come to Novaya Zemlya to carry out special works," recollected Pavel Kotov, Admiral and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, in October 1979, "accomplished a feat. They were the people of our fleet and aviation. They were our scientists, industry workers and skilled specialists such as miners, erectors and builders. It is they who, in a bare place and under difficult polar conditions, created the first test laboratories in an extremely short period of time, installed and adjusted the most sophisticated apparatus and equipment, trained the personnel, and provided tests with powerful machinery."

A number of working areas were prepared in the course of time on the test ground, namely, in the Chernaya Bay on the

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Yuzhny Island, where explosions were carried out in the water area or on the coast in 1955-1962 (underground tests were also carried out in wells not far from that place after 1963); on the southern coast of the Matochkin Strait near the Severny settlement, where charges were tested in tunnels in 1964-1990; and on the Sukhoi Nos Peninsula in the area of Mityushikha Bay, where only air tests "in a bomb mode" were conducted in 1957-1962, and some others.


The first test of a nuclear charge for a torpedo warhead was of great importance. It was preceded by a prolonged, almost two-month preparation, when measures on radiation safety were worked through and equipment for obtaining information on destructive factors of underground explosion was created.

The Institute of Chemical Physics of the USSR Academy of Sciences (Academicians Nikolai Semyonov and Mikhail Sadovsky as heads of research work) was entaisted with a special mission. Its specialists worked out unique instruments for numerous and various physical measurements.

At the same time, there appeared new research institutions in the structures of the Ministry of Defense, the institutions of the Ministry of Medium Machine-Building and the USSR Academy of Sciences, which participated in solving of scientific and practical problems, and also institutions of the Ministry of Health and the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, which conducted medical-biological and radiation-hygienic research.

We must bear in mind that 20 nuclear explosions (8 surface and 12 air ones) had been already detonated near Semi-palatinsk in Kazakhstan before the tests started on Novaya Zemlya. Of course, the obtained experience proved useful on the northern test range. To guarantee general and radiation safety, experience of the similar tests in the USA known by that time was widely used as well. American specialists started such tests almost immediately after they had created nuclear weapons. They carried out the first nuclear underwater explosion of 21 Kt power on the Bikini atoll in the Pacific Ocean as early as on July 24, 1946.

It was decided to carry out three field experiments on the Novaya Zemlya test range to study the impact of destructive factors on ships and to obtain experimental data on problems of anti-nuclear defense. The first nuclear underwater explosion of 3.5 Kt power was carried out on September 21, 1955. Target ships, such as destroyers, submarines and minesweepers, were placed in the Chernaya Bay basin. Many of them participated in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), and though had already served their time, they still could be useful to science. Six instalment and 5 optical stations were constaicted, and 8 stands for air and radioactive fall-out sampling were installed on the coast.

The tests were carried out not only by the military, but also by civilians, who represented basically two ministries, i.e. the Ministry of Medium Machine-Building and the Ministry of Shipbuilding, and also the USSR Academy of Sciences and Academy of Medical Sciences. The charge assembly was headed by the talented engineer Yevgeny Negin (later on lieutenant-general, academician from 1979) in a special building on the Rogachev Bay coast. Then it was installed in a battle ammunition room, which represented a compartment with a removable capsule for explosives, and suspended it by a rope under the ship's keel. The explosion took place at a depth of 12 m. Naturally, no personnel was on the ship at that time, and the recording instruments were activated automatically.

Apart from the arms problem, the experiment envisaged also biomedical problems. Specialists of the Institute of Biophysics of the USSR Ministry of Health studied the extent of an impact of the destructive factors of a nuclear underwater explosion on living organisms and the environment, flora and fauna. Dogs on the ship and at open action posts were used in the experiment.

The year 1956 proved difficult when a test of thermonuclear charge of 25 Mt power, a record one at that time, was planned on Novaya Zemlya. Its weight amounted to dozens of tons, and due to its dimensions it could not fit in the hatch

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of a Tu-95 strategic bomber. A task team was sent to the test range with instructions to equip four experimental fields. In the Mityushikha area alone during summer 30 devices were installed to register nuclear reaction processes, 120—to measure parameters of blast wave, 168—for optical observations, 164 indicators for measurement of percolating radiation, and 180 radioautomatic devices. Around 20,000 tons of cargo were delivered to new areas, and 320 facilities were constructed there. A command post arose 90 km from the center of the battlefield on the Pankova Zemlya Peninsula. Around 1,500 people were brought to the new test area to equip and control these facilities. However, on August 31, top officials decided to suspend the experiment: according to calculations, the estimated excess pressure could be too intense and felt even in neighboring Scandinavia.


A year later, after the risky plans were abandoned, it was decided to carry out a surface nuclear explosion and test its effect on the Navy ships.

The ships, which took part in the experiment, were equipped with radar aerials, artillery and navigation instalments, and also additional equipment, namely, 17 different types of new facilities were installed. Radio receivers, gyrocompasses and other devices were in good working order on the submarines. The data on the parameters of destructive factors obtained in the course of the first underwater test were used to forecast the radiation situation. And on September 7, 1957, surface explosion of 32 Kt power, the only one on this archipelago, was detonated on a metal turret on the eastern coast of the Chernaya Bay. Up till now, this area is considered a sanitary protection zone as the level of radiation up to 1 m R/h is preserved in its epicenter.

The third experiment, which took place on October 10, 1957, had some specific features. It was carried out in the conditions of a simulated operational situation, namely, the infliction of a nuclear strike by a T-5 torpedo from the submarine to ships deployed at the base. Moreover, the experiment was combined with state tests of a new type of arms. The test program peculiarity lay in the fact that a torpedo should have been launched from a long distance, and an underwater explosion should have taken place at a depth of 35 m. It was planned to use 10 ships participating in the previous experiment as targets. Later on, no experiments of such scope were conducted any longer on Novaya Zemlya. The tests made it possible to correct designs of surface ships with account of nuclear defense requirements.

In the severe winter conditions of February-March 1958, five nuclear charges of different power were tested in the air, and in autumn the test program was transferred here from Semipalatinsk. We can judge the intensity of work of the test range by intervals between explosions established by the state commission: on the testing field in the Mityushikha Bay they made up 48 hours, and in the Chernaya Bay area they made up even 24 hours. The test schedule depended only on the time of delivery of expert teams to the instalment rooms, recharge of the apparatus and evacuation of people.


The geographical position and geological structure of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago favored, in contrast to Semipalatinsk, a relatively safe course of atmospheric and underground nuclear explosions of the megaton power. The

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nature itself—permafrost and lack of underground waters-created favorable conditions for rather long localization of fission products in the bowels of the earth. Besides, comparatively soft soils and absence of hard rocks decreased the level of seismic load.

In 1959-1960, in order to organize underground explosions on the test range it became necessary to prepare the southern coast of the Matochkin Strait, which separates the Northern and Southern islands of Novaya Zemlya. A group of geologists carried out the first surveys in the mouth of the Shumilikha river, flowing into the strait, and found that the mountain range along the southern coast was fit for experiments in tunnels. The competent commission confirmed possibility of keeping the radioactive products deep under, even in case of powerful explosions.

Already in January 1960, the construction of a geophysical station started in this locality. Later on the Severny settlement sprang up nearby. Five tunnels were open in the Moiseev Mountains. However, a series of powerful air tests over the Sukhoi Nos Peninsula in September-November 1961 and August-December 1962 moved aside (to September 1964) preparation for the first subsurface explosion.

On October 30, 1961, there happened an event, which was symbolic for the long-term program of nuclear weapon tests on Novaya Zemlya: an explosion of a 100 Mt thermonuclear bomb (in a half-power variant) worked out at KB-11 headed by Academician Andrei Sakharov*. Though having no practical use for the USSR Armed Forces, it nevertheless demonstrated the might of our arms. Those who observed the explosion noted its high "purity", i.e. minimum of radioactive contamination by fission fragments, as 97 percent of the charge power fell on thermonuclear reactions. The designers and physicists stated that a method had been found for an almost unlimited increase of nuclear device power.

This test was the last in the plans of 1961 as it was necessary to take into account a possible failure of a considerable part of the infrastructure. The superbomb seriously damaged

See: B. Bolotovsky, "The Universe of Dr. Sakharov", Science in Russia, No. 1-2, 1992.--Ed.

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the test range and Commanders-in-Chief of the Navy and Strategic Missile Forces had to address the Minister of Defense with a request to allocate substantial financial resources for reconstmction of the destroyed buildings and staictures.


After the Treaty of 1963 on the nuclear weapon test ban in three media became effective, the time of underground explosions set in. From 1964 they were carried out in tunnels of the Matochkin Strait and from 1972 also in the wells of the Bashmachnaya Bay area. In a word, the specialists of Novaya Zemlya mastered all types of tests, i.e. underwater, atmospheric and subsurface ones, including those of the megaton class (in tunnels and wells), which undoubtedly promoted the current state of national strategic nuclear forces*.

It is common knowledge that underground explosions are more "controlled", but they are also more labor-inten-sive and expensive. To start with, an appropriate mountain is chosen, then its geology is studied, the depth of laying the charge is determined, and finally measuring equipment is optimally placed. However, both the high cost of works and substantial time consumption are paid off owing to the expense of reduction (of hundreds of thousands times!) of radioactive effect on the environment. It should be noted that 36 percent of nuclear underground explosions on Novaya Zemlya were practically of total internal action (camouflet type) or, in other words, they were conducted without escaping of radioactive gases to the atmosphere, 60 percent—with their "escaping", but without residual pollution, and only 4 percent caused penetration of gaseous and vaporous fission products to the surface. There were two such unforeseen situations, namely, on October 14, 1969 and August 2, 1987. They both were connected with undetected geological faults.

It should be stressed that if the number of atmospheric and underwater tests was equal to the number of nuclear explosions, in case of underground tests this ratio changed as in

See: A.  Kokoshin,  "Nuclear Deterrence and  Russia's  National Security", Science in Russia. No. 6, 1999; No. 1, 2000.--Ed.

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one test the efficiency of several nuclear charges at one time was checked. For example, in 1975, eight nuclear devices were detonated under the ground simultaneously.

To cut costs, the scientists suggested a test method using several charges in one tunnel with side-drifts and also an optimal amount of measurements. It made it possible to carry out experiments in the shortest period of time before the Threshold Test Ban Treaty to 150 Kt was signed in 1974.

From September 21, 1955, a total of 130 tests were conducted on the archipelago, including 88 atmospheric, 3 underwater and 39 undergrounds ones. The last explosion sounded on October 24, 1990. A year later the test range obtained a new status—it became the Central Test Range of the Russian Federation.

From December 1955, it is used for preparation and conducting of non-nuclear explosion experiments aimed at maintaining reliability and safety of nuclear arms and operation of the test range proper in full accordance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996 and the federal law on its ratification. Such tests are a special method of studies of physical processes, which take place in nuclear charges of different kind.

They are based on the method of analyzing compressibility of fissionable materials under pressure of dozens and hundreds of millions of atmospheres, which was suggested as early as in 1957 by Yakov Zeldovich (Academician from 1958), Leo Altshulerand Yuri Styazhkin, both Drs. Sc. (Phys. & Math.), and named "the method of non-explosive chain reactions" on the recommendation of Academician Yuliy Khariton*, the supervisor of studies of the Soviet atomic project (1946-1993).

Incidentally, such experiments, which are also called hydrodynamic tests, are of great importance not only for science but also for global politics. Director of the Institute of Strategic Stability and honorary supervisor of studies of the All-Russia Research Institute of Experimental Physics Viktor Mikhailov** wrote: "The developed traditional nuclear powers through hydrodynamic experiments can solve problems of improving reliability of nuclear weaponry and efficiently accompany its operation thus reducing the risk of possible emergencies. But no state can create new types of nuclear weapons on the basis of these experiments. More exactly, it is possible to create them, but the absence of full-scale tests does not allow to be sure of a correct choice of the physical scheme and design of weapons and, consequently, to count on the nuclear factor in its politics."

In conclusion, the allotment of a part of the territory of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago for the test range, where from 1964 underwater and atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons were substituted by underground tests, and from 1990 all tests were completely stopped, as well as the absence of permanent population favored wildlife there. The seas, washing the islands, lakes and rivers are inhabited by the seal, bearded seal, Greenland seal, walrus, a lot of white whale, killer whale, codfish, herring, salmon trout, whitefish, flatfish, and capelin. In summer the following birds come flying to their nesting places: seagull, guillemot, kiddaw, geese, eida, swan and others. The famous "bird-colonies on seashores" continue active life and propagation. The population of wild reindeer increases too.

See: A. Vodopshin. "On a Visit to Khariton", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2009.--Ed.

** See: V.  Parafonova,  "Test  Physicist",  Science in Russia,  No.  2. 2009.--Ed.


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