Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office: Annual Report 2012-13

CTBT: Looking for the smoking gun

The imaginary country of Forestia has been feeling under pressure. The world is worried that tensions between it and neighbouring Equilibria have led Forestia to clandestinely develop and test a nuclear weapon. Seismic stations have detected an event that appears to be an underground explosion big enough to be a small nuclear test. Some unusual radioactive particles have also been detected by a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) radionuclide monitoring station in Equilibria – not enough to prove a nuclear explosion, but raising suspicions.

This scenario has set the background to a series of exercises, conducted by the CTBT Organization (CTBTO) over the last year, as part of its work to establish the practical capability to implement the on-site inspection (OSI) element of the CTBT. Once the Treaty is in force, OSI will be available as a tool to investigate and clarify events detected by the CTBT's global monitoring system.

Similar to the CTBT's monitoring system, the OSI mechanism is based around the use of scientifically credible methods and tools to search for and gather information to clarify the nature of an event of concern. The search is conducted over an area of up to 1000 km2 using visual and multispectral observation techniques together with radiation surveys and environmental sampling to close in on areas of interest. Local seismic monitors are installed to detect events such as rockfalls in the underground cavity created by a nuclear explosion. A number of geophysical imaging techniques are applied to detect and investigate possible underground features related to a nuclear test. Finally, and if necessary, drilling to obtain a sample of radioactive material from an underground nuclear explosion is possible.

Three 'build-up' exercises linked to the Forestia story have been conducted since April 2012. The first focused on activities prior to an inspection, where, within just a few days, a team of 40 inspectors needs to be assembled and deployed and their initial investigative work planned. The second exercise, in Austria in September 2012, played out the arrival of the inspection team in Forestia and establishment of a base of operations for its work. Finally, in Hungary in May–June 2013, the third exercise began with the team at work in the field and focused on close-in investigation of the possible nuclear explosion site.

To add realism to the exercises, the inspectors have worked with a 'team from Forestia' to conduct the inspection in an area that includes military facilities. The CTBT requires the inspected State Party to support the conduct of the inspection. Forestia has done this, but it has exercised its rights under the CTBT to protect its national interest. Forestia has sought to manage the inspectors' access to locations it considers are sensitive, but has also wanted to ensure that the inspectors' findings 'show its innocence'. The interplay of these interests, together with the practical exercise of deploying inspectors to the field and analysing inspection data, has been a realistic test for many aspects of the CTBTO's current OSI capability, and has demonstrated strong progress in the development of the capability in recent years.

The logistics involved in running these simulations has been impressive. Over 200 technical experts have participated in the various exercises, deploying more than one hundred tonnes of equipment. This is valuable experience for the CTBTO, as the logistics of an actual OSI could be very challenging – and would need to be activated on very short notice.

The three exercises have been termed 'build-up' activities and are part of a cycle of activities leading to a major and integrated test of CTBT OSI, set to be conducted over five weeks in late 2014 in Jordan. These exercises are crucial to the development of the CTBTO's capability and readiness to conduct an OSI when the CTBT enters into force.

Australian accents have been heard in the fields of Forestia. Several CTBTO staff working on the exercise hail from Down-Under, as well as a geophysicist from Australian industry. ASNO's Malcolm Coxhead has also contributed, playing the part of a Forestian government official, and leading the Forestian Team in one of the three exercises.

Did Forestia conduct a nuclear test? In the fictional scenario, as in reality, that is a question for CTBT States Parties to consider. But they can now do so with a great deal of valuable 'ground-truth' information available to them.