The Soviet Union's Nuclear Testing Programme

Page 4: Effects of Nuclear Weapon Testing by the Soviet Union

Novaya Zemlya archipelago – relocation of indigenous population

Video of 1981 Novaya Zemlya test explosion:

Novaya Zemlya became the site of some of the world's largest test explosions after the Soviet Union determined that its test site in Kazakhstan was too close to human settlements to test large nuclear weapons. Consisting of two islands approximately 450 km from the Arctic Circle, Novaya Zemlya was inhabited by nomadic peoples and reindeer before nuclear testing started. Roughly 500 people were relocated due to the testing programme. Most of the reindeer either died or were transported to the mainland, according to a Case Study on nuclear testing in Novaya Zemlya by Carrie Mc Vicker.

Testing on Novaya Zemlya represents the greatest single source
of artificial radioactive contamination in the Arctic.

A total of 130 nuclear tests were conducted there atmospherically, underground, and in the surrounding oceans between 1954 and 1990. Between 20 September and 25 October 1958, 15 bombs were detonated in the atmosphere over Novaya Zemlya. After the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963, the first underground test there took place on 15 September 1964. Forty two underground explosions were conducted on the Arctic islands until 24 October 1990. Although the site accounts for only 25 percent of all Soviet testing, the aggregate yield of tests at Novaya Zemlya is estimated at 273 Mt, roughly 94 percent of the total yield for all Soviet tests.

Environmental impacts

Testing on Novaya Zemlya represents the greatest single source of artificial radioactive contamination in the Arctic. From 1958 to 1962, the large number of high yield atmospheric tests on the islands resulted in radioactive contamination not only on Russian territory but also in Alaska and northern Canada. Norway, located just 900 km away from the islands, also received considerable radioactive fallout and became very concerned about the possibility of the Barents Sea, one of its main fishing areas, becoming polluted. Fallout from all past atmospheric weapons testing is still a major source of plutonium isotopes in the Arctic seas.

Several tests went wrong or caused unforeseen damage

  • The Tsar Bomba  was the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. It was a hydrogen bomb with a yield of about 50 Mt, detonated on 30 October 1961. The explosion was hot enough to induce third degree burns at distances of 100 km. The flash of light was so bright that it was visible at a distance of 1,000 km, despite cloudy skies. Tsar Bomba caused extensive environmental damage: the ground surface of the island was completely levelled, as were the rocks. Everything in the area was melted and blown away.
  • During an underground test on 14 October 1969, three devices were exploded in two tunnels with a total yield of 540 kt. In his Database of radiological incidents and related events, Robert Johnston explains how a gas plume burst from the surface near one of the tunnels about one hour after the test. Several hundred test personnel were in the vicinity and were not evacuated until up to one hour later. On 24 October those most seriously exposed were transported to Moscow for examination and treatment. Over 80 people received doses of 40 to 80 rad (See Chart 2).
  • On 12 September 1973, four nuclear devices with a total yield of 4.2 Mt were detonated on the northernmost island. The explosion had a seismic magnitude of 6.97 and triggered an 80 million-ton rockslide that blocked two glacial streams and created a two kilometre-long lake.
  • Venting at Novaya Zemlya in 1987 reportedly released fission products throughout Sweden, writes Peter Gizewski in Military Activity and Environmental Security: The Case of Radioactivity in the Arctic. The venting produced the highest levels recorded in northern Sweden in 15 years, apart from the Chernobyl incident. Three years later, a second venting produced similar results.
  • A 1993 study of Novaya Zemlya’s topography by John Matzko, Physical environment of the underground nuclear test site on Novaya Zemlya, Russia, revealed that at least one test site had severe leakage due to cracks in the rock formations. There have been indications that several tests caused a significant amount of leakage.