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ESR scientists monitoring North Korean nuclear test

ESR scientists monitoring North Korean nuclear test

ESR scientists are monitoring the Pacific for airborne radioactivity resulting from yesterday’s underground nuclear event detected in North Korea.

Nuclear scientists at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) play an essential role in monitoring for evidence of nuclear explosions around the world.

Wim Nijhof ESR's National Radiation Laboratory (NRL) programme leader says the explosion detected yesterday was believed to be stronger than the previous nuclear events detected in 2006 and 2009. ESR’s monitoring would contribute to the global understanding of the explosion.

He said that a range of data is collected and analysed to identify a nuclear test. Radioactivity monitoring involves measuring radioactivity in particles and gases collected from the atmosphere.

“There is not expected to be any threat to New Zealanders from any release as the amount of any radioactivity detected will be low, given that the test was carried out underground,” he said.

Airborne radionuclides from the 2006 North Korean event were picked up on the monitoring system in Canada several days after the explosion was detected.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) manages a global network of seismic and other detectors, and data strongly suggest an explosive event at approximately 02:58 UTC at the North Korean test site P’unggye.

“The International Monitoring System uses a number of different technologies to detect signals from any clandestine nuclear activities. These technologies include atmospheric radioactivity monitoring at 80 stations globally, enabling the National Data Centre to also provide warning of any contamination threats heading our way, says Wim Nijhof.

ESR is contracted to provide monitoring at six of the 80 sites located around the globe, these are located at Kaitaia, Chatham Island, Rarotonga, Fiji, Kiribati and Mauritania. In addition, ESR operates an infrasound station on Chatham Island. (Infrasonic sound waves travel great distances in the atmosphere from explosion sites and can be used to locate events).

An agreement from late last year between Australia and New Zealand now sees scientists on both sides of the Tasman working together to beef up detection of any nuclear explosions in contravention of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.


About the National Data Centre

In New Zealand, ESR operates a specialist unit called the National Radiation Laboratory (NRL) which is a National Data Centre (NDC) under the Treaty. There is a worldwide network of these centres established by the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) based in Vienna to monitor nuclear activity and radiation around the globe.

NRL reports directly to New Zealand’s “National Authority” under the Treaty, MFAT (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) assisting the Ministry in assessing the significance of any detected nuclear events.

CTBT monitoring station in Rarotonga

About the National Radiation Laboratory

NRL was formerly part of the Ministry of Health and joined ESR on 1 December 2011.

NRL is now a specialist unit of ESR. It is based in Christchurch and enables ESR to provide expert advice, services and research capability on public, occupational and medical exposure to radiation, the performance of irradiating equipment, and the measurement of radiation and radioactivity.

NRL is a CTBT National Data Centre (NDC). The role of the NDC is to examine and collate data from the International Monitoring System (IMS) established by the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) based in Vienna. The NDC reports directly to New Zealand’s CTBT “National Authority” (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, MFAT), assisting it in assessing the significance of any detected events.

About ESR

ESR is a Crown Research Institute. ESR’s world-class laboratories and scientists are the first line of defence against threats to New Zealanders health and well-being.

ESR’s scientists, researchers and analysts are entrusted with running a number of New Zealand’s critical science infrastructure and facilities:

• National Centre for Biosecurity and Infectious Disease
• National Influenza, Polio and SARS Centre
• DNA Profile Databank
• National Vaccine Services
• New Zealand Reference Culture Collection (Medical section)
• National Radiation Laboratory (NRL).

For more information about ESR refer to

About the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO)

The role of the CTBTO is to assist Member States in verifying compliance with the Test-Ban Treaty. Many attempts were made during the Cold War to negotiate a comprehensive test ban, but it was only in the 1990s that the Treaty became a reality. The CTBT opened for signature in 1996. So far,182 countries have signed the Treaty, of which 157 have also ratified it (as of February 2012), including three of the nuclear weapon States: France, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom. But 44 specific nuclear technology holder countries must sign and ratify before the CTBT can enter into force. Of these, eight are still missing: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the USA. India, North Korea and Pakistan have yet to sign the CTBT. The most recent nuclear technology holder country to ratify the Treaty was Indonesia on 6 February 2012. Since the Treaty is not yet in force, the organisation is called the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation. It was established in 1996, has over 260 staff from over 70 countries, and is based in Vienna.

For more information about CTBTO refer to

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