CTBTO prepares for large on-site inspection exercise

CTBTO prepares for large on-site inspection exercise

For a few days in late October 2007 a military shooting range in central Hungary was transformed into an exercise ground. It was an unusual kind of exercise with groups of people in white protective overalls spread across the terrain to perform different kinds of surveys and measurements. About 60 scientists and experts came together in Hungary to practice detecting a suspected nuclear explosion in an on-site inspection.

The two-week training course organized by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty Organization (CTBTO) bore particular importance. "This course is an important stage in preparing inspectors for the first comprehensive on-site inspection exercise next year in Kazakhstan," said Boris Kvok, Director of CTBTO's On-Site Inspection Division. Symbolically, the Integrated Field Exercise, or IFE08, will take place at Semipalatinsk, the former nuclear test site of the Soviet Union until 1991 when Kazakhstan became independent.

During the forthcoming exercise in Kazakhstan, the CTBTO will simulate an entire on-site inspection, including all preceding steps and all inspection activities in the field. It will be the first time for the organization to conduct such a large-scale exercise.

The CTBTO is preparing for the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). It continues to build up its global alarm system to verify compliance with the ban on nuclear testing. The system will span the entire globe to detect potential clandestine nuclear explosions in all environments.

On-site inspections are the final verification measure and can be invoked once the Treaty has entered into force. By that time all elements of an on-site inspection need to have been developed and tested.

In preparation for the big exercise next year, participants in the training course in Hungary had to follow the scenario for an on-site inspection and carry it out in a concentrated three-day exercise. All elements of an OSI exercise were to be considered and all inspection techniques included. According to Boris Kvok, "the majority of participants in this training course will travel to Kazakhstan in September next year to be inspectors in the IFE08".

Mordechai Melamud of the CTBTO, who was instrumental in planning and organizing this training course, explained that "it actually consisted of five separate but parallel training courses designed for the five sub-teams. The main objective was to familiarize the sub-teams with the equipment and to promote team-building." The sub-teams Mordechai Melamud referred to are defined according to the main OSI techniques: visual observations and overflights, measurement of radioactivity including environmental sampling and analysis, seismic aftershock monitoring and a range of geophysical observation methods.

Organized in small teams in accordance with their respective inspection techniques, participants took up stations at various locations within the limits of the shooting range, which served as the inspection area. In their white protective gear, the would-be inspectors were easily recognizable in the flat landscape of the Hungarian plane.

Peter Labak, an expert from Slovakia, led the seismic aftershock monitoring team during the mini-exercise. "We deployed several seismic stations in the area to monitor for possible aftershocks," said Labak. He added that the Hungarian hosts even set up a few small explosions to simulate such aftershocks so that his team was able to detect small seismic tremors. The analysis of the data then revealed the location and size of the explosions.

In one area, experts undertook electrical measurements at various depths in the ground as part of their geophysical observations. Rainier Arndt of the CTBTO explained, "An underground nuclear explosion would disturb the geological structures like the ground water. We look for such disturbances by examining the electrical properties of the ground."

Apart from electrical measurements, the geophysics team also used radar and magnetometers to carry out their observations. The aim was to identify anomalies and disturbances in the structures underground. If found, such changes could point to a potential underground nuclear explosion.

During the three day exercise, radiation measurements were conducted in the air on board a helicopter and on the ground using vehicles and hand-held radiation monitors. Soil and vegetation samples were taken for later analysis in the field laboratory.

A base of operations was established, which served as the hub of the inspection exercise. Here all activities were planned, observation data collected, results evaluated and environmental samples analyzed. A Field Information Management System collected all generated data and secured them for later in-depth analysis.

Since an on-site inspection starts with the assumption that a nuclear explosion may have occurred, the protection against radioactive contamination is central. Hence, radiation protection was an integral part of the exercise in Hungary. Participants wore protective gear during field activities and underwent screening and cleaning procedures when returning to base.

The exercise in Hungary brought preparations for the comprehensive on-site inspection exercise in 2008 a vital step forward. "We've made very good progress in getting familiar with the equipment and with each other in the team," said Peter Labak. "It was fantastic to see how communication between people in the subteams and in the entire team has really improved."

Wang Jun of the CTBTO who served as the inspection team leader was satisfied with the achievements made during the recent training, but he conceded that there was still room for improvement. "There is no end to any detail or design," he said.

The CTBTO will continue its preparation work until August 2008 when the Integrated Field Exercise starts. A table top exercise will be held in March 2008 when potential inspectors will again examine all elements, including equipment, staff and procedures. A special course for participants in leadership positions is also being planned.

In the meantime, the organization will stay in regular contact with prospective inspectors. "We are sending bulletins keeping future inspectors informed about all developments," said Boris Kvok. An e-learning project will be supplementary to this process.

There are still nine months to go until the start of IFE08. Everyone is in agreement that the short time until then will be used intensively to complete preparations for this unprecedented endeavour.