Russian Nuclear Monitoring Stations Went Silent After Missile Blast – The Wall Street Journal

A military base in the town of Nyonoska, Russia, shown in 2011, the site of an explosion Aug. 8 during testing of a nuclear-powered missile. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Two Russian monitoring stations designed to detect nuclear radiation went silent soon after the explosion at a missile test site this month, spurring concerns among observers that the Russian government is trying to restrict evidence of the accident.

Two days after the explosion of a suspected nuclear-powered cruise missile undergoing testing on Aug. 8, two monitoring stations nearest the site of the accident stopped transmitting data, Lassina Zerbo, who heads the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, told The Wall Street Journal.

The Russian monitoring stations, called Dubna and Kirov after the places where they are located, were contacted immediately about the data disruption, Mr. Zerbo wrote in an email on Sunday to the Journal, and Russian officials responded that they were experiencing “communication & network issues.”

“We are pending further reports on when the stations or the communication system will be restored to full functionality,” Mr. Zerbo added. He declined to speculate on what caused the outage.

The missile test, on a platform in Dvinsk Bay on the White Sea in northwest Russia, has been the subject of considerable speculation. President Trump has said it involved an advanced nuclear-powered cruise missile, which has been dubbed Skyfall by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and which Russia calls Burevestnik.

The manned monitoring stations are part of an international network of hundreds of stations set up to verify compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear weapons tests globally. Participating nations are responsible for running the stations.

The treaty has yet to formally go into effect since the required number of nations have yet to ratify it.

Russia has said it is strictly observing the accord. Numerous monitoring stations have been set up in Russia, and those stations share information with the international organization that oversees the treaty, as well as with nations that have signed the accord, including the U.S.

The stations are designed to monitor everything from seismic shifts to sound waves for signs of nuclear activity. The two stations that went silent in Russia are designed to measure radioactive particles in the atmosphere, according to the treaty organization’s website.

Arms-control experts said the monitoring problem appears to be a Russian effort to conceal information about the accident and not an effort to hide evidence of a prohibited nuclear weapons test.

“It is a very odd coincidence that these stations stopped sending data shortly after the Aug. 8 incident,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nongovernmental organization promoting arms-control policies.

“It is probably because they want to obscure the technical details of the missile-propulsion system they are trying and failing to develop,” Mr. Kimball said. “But this is not a legitimate reason to cut off test-ban monitoring data transmissions.”

Russian officials in Moscow and at the nation’s embassy in Washington, D.C., didn’t respond to requests for comment.

As the executive director of the Vienna-based Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, Mr. Zerbo has sought to build support for the accord, which has been signed by 184 nations and ratified by 168 of them. Mr. Zerbo noted that while monitoring stations in the global network have sometimes had problems with power or communications, the network, including Russian stations, has generally provided “great data availability.”

“Before knowing the final cause of this particular outage, we cannot link it to [problems that led to] any previous cases,” Mr. Zerbo added.

The episode has important implications for arms control, which is approaching a critical juncture. After the demise of the U.S.-Russian treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces and a debate in Washington over whether to extend a parallel accord that limits U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear arms, some arms-control proponents say the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty may be the last cornerstone of the traditional arms-control order and so must be maintained.

The U.S. signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty during the Clinton administration. While the Senate hasn’t approved the accord, the U.S. hasn’t conducted a nuclear test since 1992.

The sudden silence of the Russian monitoring stations is likely to be seized on by conservative critics of arms control, who have complained that the Russians can’t be trusted.

In a March letter to the White House, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and several other Republican lawmakers asked Mr. Trump to consider removing the U.S. signature from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty.

Arms-control advocates like Mr. Kimball, however, said the episode shows that the global monitoring system—which has provided information on North Korea’s nuclear tests—has proved useful and that the U.S. should strengthen it by ratifying the accord and urging other nations to follow suit.

The organization Mr. Zerbo heads has said that other seismic and infrasound stations in the organization’s network picked up evidence of the Aug. 8 explosion.

The disclosure about the Russian monitoring stations comes on the heels of a debate over whether Russia is strictly adhering to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in May that Russia was likely violating the treaty by secretly carrying out nuclear tests with very low explosive power.

The following month, Gen. Ashley amplified that accusation by stating that the entire U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia has conducted small tests that have “created nuclear yield.”

Russia has denied the accusation and complained that the Trump administration is looking for an excuse to formally withdraw from the accord.

The missile that was being tested during the accident is believed to be part of a Russian effort to circumvent U.S. missile defenses, should Washington ever build a nationwide defense system.

At least seven employees of Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy monopoly, and its Defense Ministry were killed in the accident, Russia has said.

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com

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Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-nuclear-monitoring-stations-went-silent-after-missile-blast-11566172101

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