CTBTO inspectors implement on-site inspection test scenario in Kazakh steppe

On 22 August 2008, several seismic stations of the International Monitoring System (IMS) registered a seismic event of magnitude 4 in the northeast of Arcania.  Based on IMS monitoring data, an analysis by the International Data Centre (IDC) in Vienna, Austria, and observations of increased activity at Arcania’s former nuclear test site, an on-site inspection was requested by Arcania’s neighbour, Fiducia. The CTBTO Executive Council approved the on-site inspection request on 27 August 2008. This scenario of a suspected violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) by a Member State has been developed, resulting in the first ever full simulation of an on-site inspection.  The exercise takes place at the former Soviet Union nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, which is providing the backdrop for the hypothetical State of Arcania.

CTBTO On-Site Inspection Exercise sets up in Kazakhstan

Such inspections are a key element of a global alarm system that is being built by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBTO) to detect nuclear explosions anywhere on our planet.  After many years of preparing and testing various aspects of the on-site inspection regime, the CTBTO is now applying a holistic approach during the Integrated Field Exercise 2008 or IFE08.

Anticipation is mounting at the main train station in Almaty.

Realistic scenario for an on-site inspection

In order to provide a realistic setting for the simulation exercise, the State of Arcania was invented.  Arcania is a landlocked country with a population of roughly 35 million, which shares its borders with three other fictional countries including Fiducia.  Although Arcania possesses nuclear capabilities for the production of energy that it claims not to use for military purposes, it is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  To make the scenario as realistic as possible, Arcania has a former nuclear test site on its territory: over 20 underground nuclear explosions were conducted there until 1989 when the site was closed. Remnants of previous nuclear testing activities such as boreholes, craters and derelict buildings are still visible throughout the area.

The train takes inspectors, Arcanians and all other exercise participants and observers to Semey in the north of Kazakhstan.

When confronted with the request for an on-site inspection, Arcania denied having carried out a nuclear explosion in violation of the CTBT. It asserted that there had been an earthquake some 20 km away from the IDC’s location estimate, which had triggered the alarm.  In line with its obligations under the Treaty, however, Arcania accepted the on-site inspection which began on 1 September with the arrival of the CTBTO inspection team, declaring that it would comply fully with its Treaty obligations.

Vendors offer their wares at each train stop.

Starting the inspection

The actual inspection started on 1 September in the town of Almaty in Kazakhstan, which assumed the role of Arcania’s capital, Utopium. The inspection began with a meeting between the CTBTO inspection team and representatives of Arcania, the inspected State Party. CTBTO staff and international experts assumed the roles of both the CTBTO inspectors and Arcanian representatives.  At this initial meeting, the CTBTO inspection team presented its mandate and introduced the members of the team. Both the inspectors and representatives of Arcania discussed the upcoming tasks, including issues pertaining to communications, health and safety, confidentiality and logistics.

In Semey, formerly known as Semipalatinsk, the train was exchanged for buses.

The inspection team also handed over its plan of inspection activities for the first three days.  During the first few days of an inspection, it is essential that the team becomes acquainted with the area.  A helicopter overflight, visual observation, photographing and video filming are part of these activities.

Convincing role play

Members of both teams already appeared to be immersed in their roles at this very first meeting: by identifying themselves with the parts they were assigned to play,   they created a situation as realistic as could be expected under similar circumstances. Arcanian representatives were clearly determined to protect the interests of their country and, as would be their right under the Treaty, presented a number of restrictions within the inspection team, including several no-fly or low-fly zones and restricted access areas. It turned out that these restrictions conflicted with activities planned by the inspection team, testing the inspection team’s negotiation skills in finding solutions that would ensure an effective inspection.

On the road into the Polygon, the name of the former nuclear test ground.

Crossing the Kazakh steppe

The following day, both teams embarked on a twenty-one hour train journey across the vast Kazakh steppe.  After arriving in Semey in the north of the country next to the river Irtysch (formerly known as Semipalatinsk),  they boarded buses to the Base of Operations. Located eight hours away within the former nuclear test area, the trip took them across a country that was virtually uninhabited apart from the occasional cow or horse. Soon after entering the former nuclear test ground, or the Polygon, as it is known in Kazakhstan, the paved road turned into a field track, taking the bus past deserted buildings belonging to the old nuclear test site.

Representatives of Arcania check equipment for seismic aftershock monitoring.

On the evening of 3 September, the teams arrived at the Base of Operations which presented itself as a small settlement of about 30 white and green tents dotted across the landscape.  Apart from a tiny village in the distance, no other sign of human habitation was visible in the distance of the Kazakh plains.

After settling into their temporary accommodation, participants in the exercise quickly reverted to their roles of inspectors and inspected State Party representatives and immediately started preparations for the first couple of days of the inspection.  
Setting up camp and first inspection activities
The very first day in the field began with “the initial inspection phase” which involved checking and installing the equipment necessary for the inspection activities. The inspection team faced another challenge when representatives of the inspected State Party went through equipment packing lists and found discrepancies with the equipment lists provided by the inspection team.  As is their prerogative under the Treaty, they demanded that the equipment be tested before being taken out to the field to ensure that it met all requirements. First deployment activities started on the same day.  While most inspectors were involved in camp-building activities, one team made its first trip into the inspection area to install a seismic mini-array for the monitoring of possible aftershocks of an underground explosion.

Communication experts of the inspection team erect the VSAT antenna providing direct communication with the CTBTO headquarters in Vienna.

Preparing for the first overflight

At the same time preparations for the initial helicopter overflight got underway.  The initial overflight enables the inspection team to familiarize itself with the area and to start searching for any visual anomalies in the appearance of the land that would point to a possible nuclear explosion.  While any additional overflights have to be negotiated with the host, the first one cannot be rejected.  
Sudden turn of weather adds to challenges
The next day, the weather deteriorated and all flights were grounded.  The inspection team had to continue mainly with equipment checking or installation and camp build-up.  Luck was certainly not on the side of the inspection team, as the weather turned from bad to worse, grounding all activities in the inspection area for security reasons.  Continued rain, gales and freezing temperatures overnight put camp life under considerable strain and demanded ingenuity and flexibility not only from the exercise teams but from all its inhabitants.

Before the helicopter can take off for the first overflight, inspectors discuss the flight plan with representatives of Arcania.

Over 180 people from all continents share this temporary settlement in the Kazakh steppe, including the 39 member inspection team and the five representatives of Arcania. In addition, a group of Member State observers, support staff representing the Kazakh host, and NGO and media representatives are also present. For identification purposes the main groups wear different coloured caps – red for the inspection team, blue for the Arcanians and the control team, light blue for evaluators and orange for Member State observers.

A MI8 helicopter takes off for a visual observation overflight.

Finally in the air

After two days of extremely cold and wet weather, the helicopter was finally able to take off for the first visual observation flight. Its delay due to bad weather certainly added to the challenges facing the inspection team. Prior to take off, the inspectors checked the general state of the aircraft and that it conformed with the prescribed safety requirements.  Four inspectors, two Arcanian representatives, an observer and an evaluator boarded the helicopter and were flown deeper into the former nuclear test ground.  Following an agreed flight plan using GPS, they looked for any sign of disturbances or unusual occurrences in the features on the ground.  Throughout the exercise, the two Arcanian representatives made sure that the inspectors respected the flight plan and did not transgress into areas that had previously been declared restricted. Craters, boreholes and derelict building structures from previous nuclear tests were easily recognizable on the ground below and rendered the search more challenging.

Inspectors use still cameras for this overflight to capture signs of anomalies or disturbances on the ground.

Inspection well under way

The inspection is now well into its initial phase.  The two teams, inspectors and Arcanians have become accustomed to their roles.  Following the initial spell of bad weather, instruments and equipment are being deployed in the inspection area to look for signs of a clandestine nuclear explosion.  After an active build-up period, the white tent town in the Kazakh steppe is now conducting regular business, serving as the Base of Operation for the CTBTO’s first ever full on-site inspection simulation exercise. In the coming days, more reports will be filed here, which will allow you to follow the many aspects of the biggest on-site inspection project every conducted by the CTBTO.

IFE08 Camp near the former Soviet Union nuclear site in Kazakhstan.