North Korea and the History of Underground Nuclear Testing

North Korea and the History of Underground Nuclear Testing

Test craters at the Nevada Test Site. Image courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives.

On September 9, North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test to date at its Punggye-ri underground test site. Estimates for the device’s yield range from 10 kilotons to as high as 30 kilotons. (By comparison, the “Little Boy” bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima yielded approximately 15 kilotons; the “Fat Man” bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki yielded approximately 21 kilotons.)

The test provoked worldwide condemnation and renewed fears about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. In an article for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Lewis contrasts North Korea’s nuclear weapons development with the progression of the American, Soviet, British, French, and Chinese nuclear programs. Lewis argues, “In this context, the country’s boasts about building nuclear weapons small enough to arm missiles and making use of thermonuclear materials don’t seem outlandish at all.”

Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow uses the North Korean test as a jumping off point to explore the history of the underground nuclear testing. She describes how underground testing began after the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and focuses in particular on the 1971 Cannikin test in Alaska, the largest underground U.S. nuclear test.

If you are interested in viewing more footage of underground nuclear tests, visit AHF’s YouTube channel. The “Cold War Nuclear Tests” playlist includes footage of two underground tests that were carried out at the Nevada Test Site in 1968, Shot Buggy of Operation Crosstie and Shot Schooner of Operation Bowline. The tests were also part of Operation Plowshare, an effort to use nuclear explosives for peaceful construction purposes. The U.S. conducted its last nuclear test, codenamed Divider, at an underground facility in Nevada on September 23, 1992.