Explosive Content: The Mystery of Azgir

Satellite image of the Azgir site from 24 August 2013. (© 2013 DigitalGlobe / IHS)

Today we are starting a six-part series describing the mysterious circumstances of the Azgir sphere, a device mistakenly identified during the Cold War by the West as a nuclear-explosion chamber. The research into this topic was undertaken by Robert Kelley, Distinguished Associate Research Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He is a former director at the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear engineer. His story, written for Jane’s Satellite Imagery Review, is being reproduced here with the permission of Jane’s and the author

The author would like to acknowledge Guacharo Mukhatzhanova, director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program (IONP) at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). Ms. Mukhatzhanova previously served as senior research associate in the CNS office in Washington, DC

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. She is a widely published scholar on nuclear proliferation issues and she gave substantial help and support for this article


Two Spheres in Kazakhstan

By Robert Kelley

In November 2013, Kazakhstan announced that it would begin producing artificial industrial diamonds through the compaction of graphite with high explosives. The site chosen is a huge 12-metre diameter steel sphere near the village of Azgir in western Kazakhstan.

Originally built in 1980, the sphere was to contain large conventional-explosive events for the Arzamas-16 nuclear weapons laboratory (The All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics RFNC – VNIIEF), sited in present-day Russia. Two essentially identical spheres were built to study contained explosive experiments although one additional use was to produce artificial diamonds for industry. The location of the second sphere, however, is unknown


The history of this sphere, and others like it, is coloured by US military fears that they were related to Soviet nuclear-driven directed energy weapons. Further controversy stems from the potential proliferation of nuclear know-how and the association of Soviet scientists responsible for explosive compaction with Iran’s nuclear programme . The dual-use nature of this knowledge means it could potentially contribute to the development of nuclear weapons, and in November 2011 the IAEA linked a similar testing chamber to the potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme.

PART TWO: The Fear of Directed Energy Weapons will be published on 9 July 2018.

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