Practice makes perfect: preparing for on-site inspections

Did Bludor illegally test a nuclear weapon?

The country says a seismic event picked up by global monitoring stations under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was just an earthquake. The governments of Whedor and Miscia aren’t convinced.  An international inspection team is ready with truckloads of high-tech equipment to collect evidence on whether a nuclear explosion took place.

This is fiction – but a week-long scenario played out by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) and experts from Member States tested procedures that could be called on in the future.

A real on-site inspection can only take place once the CTBT has entered into force, which requires ratification by eight more specific states. But the Treaty’s International Monitoring System and International Data Centre are already up and running, and exercises like this help to ensure the CTBTO could respond quickly and effectively if an on-site inspection – the third key pillar of the verification regime – is ever requested.

Around 50 CTBTO staff and 19 trained experts from 14 Member States took part in the event, which was run by the CTBTO’s On-Site Inspection (OSI) Division from 11 to 15 November 2019. The first of three consecutive exercises, it concentrated on the initial launch phase – the crucial days between receipt of a formal inspection request and the inspectors’ departure to the field.

Time is of the essence. Physical clues may fade over time, so the Treaty gives inspectors only six days to reach the country to be inspected once a request is received (and subsequently approved) by the CTBTO governing body.

Participants played out a full range of crucial activities. The CTBTO has no standing inspectorate, so available inspectors were identified from a roster of trained national experts. Complex transport arrangements were worked out, both for the inspectors and for tonnes of sophisticated equipment.

Information was gathered and analysed to inform the governing body’s decision on whether to approve the inspection. An initial inspection plan was drawn up for negotiation with Bludor, and inspectors were briefed for the field, including local conditions and how to handle a barrage of media interest.

The recently redeveloped Operations Centre at CTBTO’s Vienna headquarters proved itself as a state-of-the-art facility to support an on-site inspection. The CTBTO’s brand new Technology Support and Training (TeST) Centre (Video) in Seibersdorf, south-east of Vienna, was also put through its paces, with fork-lift trucks shifting huge cases of kit to waiting trucks.

All procedures were tested and improvements duly noted, from the intricacies of formal documentation to making sure the right people were in the right meeting.

The exercise will continue in June and September 2020 with two further stages, covering the inspectors’ arrival in Bludor and the conduct of the inspection through to presentation of the findings. Slovakia will host both these stages in the field, providing a real-life location for the fictional scenario.

The CTBTO has also held two full-scale Integrated Field Exercises covering all stages of an on-site inspection: in Kazakhstan in 2008 and Jordan in 2014.



See our Flickr album for more photos from the exercise.



To learn more about how CTBTO trains on-site inspectors and the kind of techniques they’ll be using in next year’s exercises, take a look at our video on How to Find a Nuclear Test: