Russia China and USA nuclear test sites: The latest satellite images from nuclear test sites in the US, Russia and China show that all three countries are taking steps to restore their nuclear weapons testing facilities. None of the agencies have conducted testing since the 1990s, but all three have legitimate reasons to resume testing. The main obstacle to resuming testing is the diplomatic and political ramifications of such tests, which would be condemned by the rest of the world.
CNN asked experts to review images of American, Russian and Chinese nuclear test sites taken from commercial Planet satellites. The experts concluded that there was increased activity at all three sites, including “new tunnels under the mountain, new roads and warehouses, and increased traffic to and from the sites”.
Nuclear tests are often conducted underground to limit explosions and radioactivity that can be carried by the wind and endanger nearby populations. Hills are especially useful because the testers can dig horizontally instead of vertically to make room for explosions.
The US conducted its last nuclear test in 1992, the Soviet Union in 1990, and China in 1996. (Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.) The three countries, which together hold more than 92 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, have refrained from testing nuclear weapons in what amounts to an informal ban for decades. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear explosions, exists but has yet to enter into force because eight countries, including the United States, have not ratified it. In other words, there is no legal reason why a country cannot test nuclear weapons. However, while all of the “big three” countries have reasons to want to resume testing, none have so far done so — and none expect that resumption of testing will be met with international condemnation.
USA nuclear weapons.
The US has 5,244 nuclear warheads divided into eight types, equipped with land-based missiles, bombers and submarines. The United States is quite confident in the reliability of its nuclear arsenal, but there is always the possibility of an unseen failure that prevents a nuclear weapon from reaching its intended yield—full explosive power. More nuclear tests will also help to fully reveal the secrets of how nuclear weapons work. The US Department of Energy and Defense developed two new weapons, the B61-12 nuclear bomb and the W76-2 submarine-launched missile warhead, but neither was actually detonated. Both warheads are derived from existing designs: the B61-12 is just the latest series of B61 bombs from the 1960s, while the W76-2 is a much lower explosive derivative of the W76 warhead.
Russian nuclear weapons.
Russia has 5,589 nuclear warheads, divided into ten or more types, ranging from strategic weapons mounted on long-range missiles, bombers and submarines to low-yield tactical nuclear weapons carried by rockets and cruise missiles. The current Russian government has never tested nuclear weapons, but Russia inherited nuclear weapons, equipment and experts when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia relied heavily on nuclear weapons, a result of the country’s economic backwardness and the need to protect a large geographic area. Russia is also notorious for using weapons tests and military exercises as a show of force to intimidate weaker countries and project power to the US and NATO. Russia’s lackluster performance in Ukraine could make a potential show of force an attractive option. Moscow may also be worried about the possibility of testing dumb weapons. While all three countries face the risk of being tested by enemies, tests intended to scare enemies would be counterproductive if the bombs didn’t work.
China’s nuclear weapons.
China is probably the country that will benefit the most from the resumption of nuclear weapons testing. China has 410 nuclear weapons in its permanent arsenal, of which there are only four to six different types of warheads. China ceased testing in 1996 and at the time had the most primitive nuclear arsenal of the three countries. Unlike the US and Russia, China is primarily looking for high-performance, reliable bombs to compensate for the poor accuracy of its missiles.
China is in the midst of a nuclear weapons buildup, adding about 100 to 150 warheads over the past decade. It also adds several new delivery systems, including the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, the JL-3 submarine-launched missile, and the long-awaited H-20 stealth bomber. Beijing may want to equip these systems with new, smaller warheads, especially if it wants a missile capable of delivering nuclear strikes against multiple targets. While computer modeling and predictions may give China some confidence in the effectiveness of a new warhead design, no one can know for sure until it is tested.
The nuclear test situation is currently at an impasse, with the three major nuclear powers waiting to see who will be the first to conduct a test. Everyone has their reasons for resuming nuclear tests, but no one wants to bear the shame of being the first to break the unofficial ban. The second country tested attracted much less attention, and the third even more. While we don’t know when the first new test will take place, another test in another country may be coming soon.