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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 59, July - August 2001

Opinion & Analysis

Who Needs the Nuclear Test Ban?

By Rebecca Johnson and Daryl Kimball

"The United States and its allies have worked side by side for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty since the days of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This goal is now within our grasp. Our security is involved, as well as America's."
Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister), Jacques Chirac (President of France) and Gerhard Schröder (Chancellor of Germany), October 8, 1999

A global halt to nuclear weapons test explosions has been a key security objective of the international community since it was first proposed by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1954 and negotiations between US President Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Krushchev were initiated in 1958. Spurred by a new round of post-Cold War nuclear testing moratoria and civil society support in the early 1990s, multilateral negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were concluded in August 1996 and the treaty was opened for signature at the United Nations on September 24, 1996.

It took 50 years to get this treaty, which "prohibits any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion" and which aims to constrain the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons, curb proliferation, and advance disarmament. By the end of August, the treaty had been signed by 161 countries, including 41 of the 44 states required for entry into force. Nevertheless, five years after its opening for signature, the CTBT is in jeopardy. Thirteen key states - including China, India, Israel, Pakistan, the United States - must sign and/or ratify to enable the accord to take full legal effect. With each year that passes without CTBT entry into force, the odds increase that one state or another will resume nuclear testing.

During September 25-27, 2001, the second Conference on Accelerating CTBT Entry Into Force will be held in New York, as provided for in Article XIV of the treaty. The conference is an important opportunity to reaffirm the international community's support for the full implementation of the CTBT and address the challenges facing the treaty. But, as is customary in diplomatic conferences, it is likely that core issues and difficulties may be glossed over. The debate over the CTBT has become mired in rhetoric from competing interests groups for and against a nuclear test ban, particularly in the United States, India, and Pakistan. It is important to recall the purpose of the CTBT, the challenges to entry into force, and consider the consequences for national and international security if nuclear testing were to be resumed.

Why Pursue CTBT Entry Into Force?

"The most common birth defects [after the US nuclear tests] have been 'jellyfish babies'... born with no bones in their bodies... [they] live for a day or two, before they stop breathing."
Lijon Eknilang, from the Marshall Islands, speaking in 1996.

A nuclear test ban contributes to non-proliferation as well as disarmament and prevents further damage to the environment from the intense heat and radiation of successive nuclear blasts. Nuclear testing is necessary for the development of sophisticated or new nuclear weapon designs. Although crude nuclear devices can be manufactured without testing, nuclear warheads small enough to be delivered by missiles would require nuclear test explosions. And while a proliferator could conceivably develop an ambiguous nuclear deterrent, it could not demonstrate its capability or prove its reliability without nuclear test explosions.

The CTBT's contribution to curbing the development of advanced, new types of nuclear warheads also helps to reduce dangerous nuclear arms competition between the existing nuclear capable states. Test ban treaty signature and ratification by India and Pakistan would not close-off their nuclear capabilities, but it would rule out further development and operational deployment of new thermonuclear weapons that could be delivered on longer-range systems and would help dampen a destabilising arms race in the region. China would be restrained from testing more advanced nuclear warhead designs that would enable it to field multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.

The CTBT's far reaching nuclear test monitoring provisions, including an international monitoring network, short notice on-site inspections, and confidence building measures will help ensure that other countries are not conducting nuclear test explosions. The full-scale implementation of this system depends on entry into force of the treaty. While some nations possess powerful national intelligence capabilities which bolster the CTBT's monitoring and verification system, most do not. The CTBT's international system provides the confidence and transparency necessary for organising multilateral action against would-be violators.

In addition, it is possible that financial support for the establishment of the treaty's monitoring and verification system will wane if entry into force is indefinitely delayed. The Vienna-based CTBT Organisation Preparatory Commission administers a $100 million (USD) budget to complete monitoring, data analysis and on-site inspections. In a move set to weaken the treaty's credibility, the Bush administration in August indicated that while it expected to continue support for the international monitoring system, it was unwilling to support activities related to on-site inspections.

Entry into force of the CTBT would also prevent additional environmental and health damage from nuclear test explosions and reduce the risk of nuclear war. Since 1945, seven countries have conducted 2,046 nuclear test explosions - an average of one test every 10 days. Most of these tests were conducted in the western United States (Nevada), the former Soviet Union (Novaya Zemlya, Siberia and Kazakhstan), the South Pacific (the Marshall Islands and the Polynesian atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa), and northwestern China (Lop Nor), but also in Algeria and Australia, most often in the lands of indigenous people, far from the capitals of the testing governments. By the year 2000, the 528 atmospheric tests delivered radioactive materials that will have produced approximately 430,000 additional cancer fatalities, according to a 1990 report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). The US National Cancer Institute has estimated that the 90 dirtiest US tests will cause 10,000-75,000 additional thyroid cancers.

While underground nuclear blasts pose a much smaller radioactive hazard than atmospheric tests, there has been widespread venting from underground explosions, especially at the Semipalatinsk test site. The US has acknowledged that 114 of its 723 underground tests have released radioactive material into the atmosphere. In addition, underground nuclear blasts leave an almost permanent legacy of radioactive contamination, which in some areas, such as the fragile marine environment of Moruroa, may leak within our lifetimes.

The atomic bombings of August 6 and 9, 1945, illustrate the magnitude of the direct harm caused by nuclear explosions. Of Hiroshima's population of 340,000 people, 130,000 were dead by November 1945 and by 1950 an additional 70,000 had perished, mainly from radiation-related illnesses. In Nagasaki, 70,000 people were killed outright or died within the first four months, and another 70,000 died by 1950.

Treaties, Norms and Collective Security

"[the CTBT] is critical to protecting the American people from the dangers of nuclear war."
President Bill Clinton, October 13, 1999

The CTBT does not stand or fall by itself. It is a vital part of a network of treaties, agreements and norms that underpin international efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and codify bilateral and multilateral arms control and disarmament. Repudiating or weakening one or more elements erodes the overall framework of constraints. The most successful of these international instruments is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 and now has 187 parties. Of these, 180 of the 182 who pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons have fully complied with their obligations. For them, the CTBT is a long overdue measure that the five who already had nuclear arms by 1970 promised to conclude as part of their commitment to end the arms race and negotiate on nuclear disarmament.

The NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995 largely on the basis of the renewed commitment of the major nuclear weapons powers to conclude the CTBT. The "... importance and urgency of signatures and ratifications, without delay and without conditions to achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty ...." was reaffirmed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

While widespread repudiation of the NPT is not likely in the immediate future, the regime is vulnerable. Rejection of the CTBT by some states might provide an excuse for a government that wished to renounce or thwart its NPT obligations. Inaction on the CTBT by the United States has already complicated efforts to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on civilian nuclear programs. Though the CTBT cannot alone stop the spread and development of nuclear weapons, the world cannot effectively pursue non-proliferation and disarmament without it.

Danger Signs

India and Pakistan's May 1998 nuclear blasts set back the drive for the CTBT but also made its value even more obvious. The two states have thus far refused to sign the CTBT because they are concerned that the test ban would cap their nuclear ambitions. Though the US rejection of the Treaty has substantially undermined international efforts to persuade India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT, they have found it necessary to declare voluntary moratoria on further tests, saying that signature of the CTBT awaits the development of a "consensus" for such action. Both governments are under pressure from their nuclear laboratories to conduct further tests, but both are also aware of the strength of international opinion supporting the norm which the CTBT has begun to establish against testing. Further border conflict in Kashmir and lack of progress on nuclear restraint measures in South Asia could increase political pressure in India and Pakistan to conduct further nuclear weapon test explosions to perfect new types of nuclear warheads, including two-stage thermonuclear weapons.

The United States, which had played a leadership role in negotiating the CTBT, is now one of the major hold-out states. On October 13, 1999, the Senate became the first and only legislature to reject ratification in a highly-partisan 51-48 vote. The Senate vote ran counter to support for the treaty expressed by military leaders, including Colin Powell and three other former Chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and public opinion polls showing that an overwhelming 82 percent of all Americans backed the treaty.

Since taking office, senior Bush administration officials have underlined George W. Bush's opposition to the treaty. US officials have said that they will not ask the Senate to reconsider approval of the CTBT, but at the same time they urge all states to maintain their existing testing moratoria. At present the treaty remains on the Senate calendar. The Democrats now hold the majority in the Senate. The CTBT will not be moved forward without Presidential support, but the State Department has determined that neither can the President withdraw the treaty from the Senate's consideration. The CTBT is trapped in US political limbo.

There is growing evidence that the Bush administration's policy on the CTBT is not driven by concerns about verification or maintaining the existing arsenal, as most often argued, but is driven rather by the desire to keep all options open to develop new nuclear weapons. Dissatisfied with having the largest and most sophisticated arsenal in the world, some administration officials, including nuclear weapon laboratory scientists, and some Congressional members believe that the United States should develop new types of low-yield nuclear weapons for the purpose of destroying facilities deep underground. They also do not rule out a possible nuclear component of future missile defence scenarios. Additional nuclear test explosions would be desired to provide military confidence in fielding such weapons. In June 2001, the Department of Energy initiated a study to explore how the United States could shorten the time required to resume nuclear testing, which is now 12-36 months.

Yet, as former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili noted in his January 2001 report to the President, "the nation's arsenal is safe, reliable and able to meet all stated military requirements...for as far into the future as we can see..." After 1993, the US reorganised and increased funding for its nuclear weapons research and development program to compensate for the absence of nuclear testing, which has always been used by the US to perfect new nuclear weapons. Today, through this "Stockpile Stewardship Programme", the US spends over $5 billion per year on nuclear weapon maintenance, non-nuclear and subcritical nuclear testing, research and development, and even some limited modifications of the US arsenal. In fact, the greatest threat to future warhead reliability may come from those weapon designers who, in their quest to modify existing warheads, risk making changes that reduce confidence in proven bomb designs.

While there is no US military requirement for a new nuclear weapon, these requirements may change following the US "nuclear posture review" to be completed towards the end of 2001. If there is a decision to build and test a new nuclear weapon, US policy established in 1992 by George Bush Sr would be overturned. If the United States resumes testing for new nuclear designs or other purposes, it will only be a matter of months before the treaty collapses, leaving others free to test. It was precisely to prevent the possibility of such a new arms race that the nations of the world joined together to negotiate the CTBT at the end of the Cold War.

In response to the threatened deployment of an extensive US missile defence system, Beijing may come under pressure to resume testing in order to develop a more sophisticated arsenal, including some 200-300 multiple-warhead strategic nuclear weapons. The New York Times carried an article on September 2, in which senior US officials appeared sanguine about a possible resumption of nuclear testing by China, indicating that the United States, which might also want to resume testing, could accept this in return for China's acceptance of missile defence. China, like the United States, has pursued a programme of subcritical experiments at its Lop Nor test site.

Russia helped advance the cause of entry into force when the Duma approved ratification of the CTBT in May 2000, at the same time calling upon all other states to sign and/or ratify. Like the United States and China, however, Russia continues to conduct subcritical testing, and remains capable of resuming full scale testing and new weapons development and deployment if the CTBT should fail. Britain and France ratified the treaty in April 1998, and France has subsequently dismantled the Moruroa and Fangataufa nuclear test sites in the South Pacific.

Preventing Treaty Violations

A major criticism levelled against the CTBT by its opponents in the US Senate was that it cannot be verified. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany looked into that question and came to the opposite conclusion: "The treaty is effectively verifiable...the [monitoring] system is already being put in place. We know it will work." (Prime Minister Blair, President Chirac, and Chancellor Schröder, The New York Times, October 8, 1999.)

The negotiators, who included scientists from many countries with expertise in a number of relevant fields, created a very comprehensive verification system, designed to detect and identify any militarily significant nuclear explosion. The treaty's international monitoring system utilises four technologies (seismic, hydroacoustic, radionuclide and infrasound), and is backed-up with the option of short-notice on-site inspections in the event of a suspected nuclear explosion. The treaty monitoring and verification system can be augmented with additional information from treaty members' own national technical means, as well as commercial satellites and thousands of civilian seismic monitoring stations.

Successive studies and leading experts have determined that no would-be violator could have confidence that a nuclear explosion of sufficient yield to be of any military significance or use would escape detection. No verification system can ever be 100 percent. Its purpose is to detect, identify and deter significant cheating. The CTBT verification regime, if funding continues to allow it to be properly and fully established, is more than equal to this task. If cheating were to be discovered, the CTBT allows states parties to pursue strong measures to deal with non-compliance and to reduce nuclear dangers.

The Costs of Inaction

What would be the consequences of the CTBT not entering into force? There are two likely alternatives: no CTBT but continued commitment to moratoria; or resumption of nuclear testing by one or more countries. The first might look convenient, but there could be problems over compliance which would be difficult to resolve in the absence of a enforceable verification regime, which only the CTBT can provide. Over time, commitment to the non-testing norm would be likely to erode, and accusations of non-compliance could increase international tensions. Some form of provisional application or selective entry into force undertaken by those who had ratified the CTBT could go some way to addressing the problems, but this would be impossible to establish without at the very least the five major nuclear weapon states, and probably India and Pakistan as well.

Measures to Support the CTBT

While it may be possible to sustain the unilateral moratoria undertaken by the nuclear testing states for several years, uncertainties and the risk of a resumption of testing will only grow over time.

The norm against nuclear testing remained firm despite the South Asian nuclear tests of 1998, but US wavering on the CTBT is damaging the credibility of that norm, and it could not be assumed that if more nuclear tests were conducted, others would not also resume testing. The possibility of disintegrating into a nuclear free for all is particularly high if one of the major powers were to violate the norm and resume testing.

It is therefore imperative that measures be undertaken to uphold nuclear testing moratoria and secure the ratifications necessary for CTBT entry into force.

  • The 2001 Conference on Accelerating CTBT Entry Into Force should urge the 13 states preventing entry into force promptly to sign and/or ratify the CTBT without conditions or reservations. The world will otherwise hold these countries responsible for undermining the test ban, and weakening the establishment of effective nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regimes.
  • The leaders and the governments of the 13 CTBT hold-out states should re-consider and re-commit themselves to the ratification of the CTBT. In the meantime, they should maintain their nuclear testing moratoria, fully support the work of the CTBTO PrepCom, and announce they will refrain from the pursuit of new types of nuclear weapons, which may lead to nuclear testing.
  • Each signatory to provide adequate financial, political and technical support for the continued development and operation of the CTBTO so that the International Data Centre, the International Monitoring System and the Executive Secretariat are available and ready to monitor for and verify compliance when the CTBT enters into force. States should also support the timely establishment of an effective verification system, open access to data, and to the development of procedures for effective and timely on-site inspections.
  • Until the CTBT enters into force, the nuclear weapon states with active test sites should voluntarily agree to periodic inspections of their test sites by observers on behalf of the CTBTO and signatory states to increase confidence that clandestine nuclear testing has not occurred. They should also agree to avoid activities at their test sites that might be mistaken for nuclear weapon test preparations.
  • The international community should commit itself to condemn any future testing and call upon governments, businesses and people around the world to respond to any future test by withholding trade and other support from the testing countries. States parties to the CTBT should continue to work together systematically to send high-level groups of emissaries to key countries which have not yet signed or ratified the treaty in order to facilitate and encourage their support for the CTBT.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of the Acronym Institute. Daryl Kimball is Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, Washington DC.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.