Russia's military and political leaders are planning to beef up security at the country's last remaining nuclear test site on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Through 2013, the region will see the deployment of MiG-31 supersonic interceptors, while the Northern Fleet will be on permanent combat duty just off the coast. In Soviet times, such measures were always a sign that full-scale nuclear testing was about to be underway.

In 1963, the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States signed a treaty banning nuclear tests in three environments: the atmosphere, outer space, and under water. Restrictions were also imposed on the strength of test devices. When the agreement was signed, Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean switched exclusively to underground testing, which rules out the possibility of radioactive contamination.

Tests on Novaya Zemlya have been suspended indefinitely since the early 1990s. At the time, the government sought to implement a set of unilateral peace-building measures and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The Kremlin hoped that this step would not only get its former Cold War adversaries to sit down at the negotiating table and begin the process of reducing their nuclear arsenals, but also make them partners in other political and economic issues. But Washington refused to join Moscow's initiative, although it did declare a moratorium on nuclear testing.

“A nuclear arsenal is a living organism,” says a specialist at Rosatom (Russia's nuclear regulatory body) responsible for the nuclear weapons sector. “The processes that take place inside the core require constant monitoring. The mechanical and electronic components also need to be watched carefully.

“In 1996, as part of CTBT compliance, our department was tasked, without undermining the treaty, to confirm the reliability and security of storage and operation, as well as the compliance of the nuclear arsenal with its performance characteristics. Technology was developed for so-called subcritical experiments, to guarantee with high accuracy the combat readiness of the nuclear weaponry at hour X and its complete safety during storage," said the specialist.

The technology for non-nuclear (hydrodynamic or subcritical) explosions was like a safety valve for the nuclear powers: it is largely to thank for modifying the stance of the U.S. and the U.K. in relation to international treaties banning nuclear tests. In the U.S., experiments on the new technology were conducted using the LYNER underground installation at the Nevada National Security Site. Russia opted for Novaya Zemlya.

Experiments with model nuclear devices are carried out in the same shafts and using the same technology as full-fledged nuclear devices. The crucial (and only) difference is that a model nuclear device uses a non-critical mass of fissile material, releasing no more than 0.1 micrograms of TNT equivalent.

The model is placed in a special container encased in bentonite clay, and the entrance to the drift is sealed with concrete. The experiments are environmentally safe. The container removes all risk to the environment and people outside – even those at Rosatom's “internal” test sites. The safety of the experiments is evidenced by the fact that the testers themselves stand only 100 feet away from the explosion site. Every year, the technology is tested on Novaya Zemlya with four to six control explosions. As a result, Russia can say that its nuclear arsenal is completely safe and combat-ready.

Russia's programme to maintain the operational safety of its nuclear stockpile costs around 2 billion roubles ($63.6 million) and occupies a separate line in the national budget. Of this money, only 30-40 million roubles go directly toward the tests themselves; most of it is spent on preparatory work in the laboratory and on maintenance of industry facilities. The field employs tens of thousands of people. Of the initial four enterprises directly involved in the assembly and disassembly of nuclear devices (each nuclear weapon is returned to the manufacturer once every three years to be completely dismantled and diagnosed), only two remained by 2003. In actual fact, Russia's nuclear arsenal has long fallen from tens of thousands to just 2,679 warheads. These were the figures for December 2010, given on the Strategic Nuclear Forces of Russia website.

“In previous years, we laid the groundwork for developing and testing nuclear weapons,” said rocket engineer Gerbert Yefremov, “so currently there is no need to resume full-scale nuclear testing.”

He says that Rosatom will continue to develop, test, utilise, and maintain nuclear weapons under the CTBT, as it did before. The military's task remains the same: to ensure the safe storage, transportation, and operation of nuclear weapons. This includes the strict non-disclosure of information about the latest nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya. As for the deployment of additional forces in the region, that has less to do with the restoration of the test site, and more to do with Russia's economic claims to the Arctic shelf.