Jenifer Mackby is a Senior Adviser at Partnership for a Secure America. She worked on the negotiations and implementation of the CTBT and has served in senior positions at a number of international organizations focusing on nuclear, biological, and conventional weapons issues. Mackby is the co-author of several books on these subjects and has appeared in The New York Times, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and National Defense University publications.
What are the Benefits of a CTBT?
While waves of generations in many countries have fought for a treaty to ban nuclear weapon test explosions, the U.S. Congress has been divided on the issue in recent decades. The Senate rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999 by a vote of 51-48, putting it on the same side of the street as those it finds most unsavory– North Korea, Iran, Pakistan. In a 2009 bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the U.S., the CTBT was the only issue on which they could not agree. However, given new political realities and new scientific findings about verification capabilities, many in the national security community now support the treaty and believe it should be re-visited.
A 2012 study by the prominent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) cites important developments in the treaty’s monitoring system and the U.S. national monitoring capabilities on the verification technologies deployed worldwide to detect nuclear test explosions. The ability to verify the treaty has improved well beyond what was predicted in 1999. The NAS study noted in particular that the core monitoring technique, seismology, provides much more sensitive detection, identification and location of explosions than previously. The NAS study said that the U.S. has the technical ability to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without resuming nuclear testing. As former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Thomas D’Agostino, said, “We know more about the complex issues of nuclear weapons performance than we ever did during the period of nuclear testing.”
In 1999, the organization established to implement the treaty’s verification had just started, and none of its international monitoring stations were in operation. Now, 85 percent of the system has been installed. This International Monitoring System (IMS) comprises 337 facilities in 89 countries around the world that detect nuclear explosions by measuring seismic events under ground, airborne radionuclide particles and gases, infrasound (low frequency sound waves) in the atmosphere, and detonations under water. The IMS detected all three of the North Korean nuclear weapon test explosions, with 98 stations detecting the last one in February 2013. The on-site inspection regime is almost complete, and a large-scale field exercise will be conducted in Jordan at the end of 2014 to simulate an on-site inspection. The U.S. also has significant technical means, including advanced satellite and intelligence data, which it can use for monitoring purposes.
Top scientists and military officials around the world believe that no potential CTBT violator could be confident that a nuclear explosion of any military utility would escape detection. The scientific and military communities have not advocated a return to testing. On the contrary, most support the ban, including former Secretaries of Defense William Perry, Harold Brown, William Cohen and Melvin Laird. Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. “should probably” ratify the treaty “if there are adequate verification measures.”
Most experts agree that the treaty will prevent countries from developing advanced nuclear weapons or improving existing ones. The CTBT would lock in the large advantage held by the United States in nuclear testing. The U.S. has conducted 1,030 nuclear test explosions, more than all other countries combined. In comparison, the Soviet Union conducted 715, France 210, the United Kingdom and China 45, India 5, Pakistan 6, and North Korea 3. Most experts agree that the treaty will prevent countries from developing advanced nuclear weapons or improving existing ones. “The single most important reason to ratify the CTBT is to stop other countries from improving their arsenals,” said former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Sig Hecker. “We gain substantially more from limiting other countries than we lose by giving up testing.”
Opponents of the treaty believe that it is not effectively verifiable, that the absence of testing poses risks to the reliability of the stockpile, and that the treaty does not include definitions. Former Secretary of State George Shultz argued that Senators who opposed the Treaty in 1999 could say they were right then, but they would be right to vote for the Treaty today. “They don’t have to say they changed their mind,” Shultz said. “They can say there’s new evidence that we have, and on the basis of new evidence” they can support it. Actually, only 12 of those who voted no in 1999 remain in the Senate. This does not mean that the current Senate has enough yea votes to provide its advice and consent to ratification; however, it could take a fresh look at the treaty, as Senator McCain said he would do.
What are the other security benefits if the U.S. starts the endgame of ratification? The international community believes that the CTBT will help prevent a nuclear arms race, curb nuclear weapons proliferation and strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Negotiators of the NPT in 1968 called for a test ban treaty under Article VI of the treaty, and every review conference of the NPT has repeated that call with increased vehemence. The U.S., which strongly opposes North Korean testing and the possibility that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons, stresses the nonproliferation more than the disarmament measures in the NPT that are favored by non-aligned countries.
The five recognized nuclear weapon states have been maintaining their nuclear weapons without testing; the U.S. and Russia have done so for more than two decades. The U.S. triggered the negotiations on the treaty in 1993 and was the first country to sign it in 1996; however, the treaty has been on the back burner since 1999. By the end of 2013, 159 countries, including Russia, all NATO allies, the EU, and U.S. allies Japan, South Korea and Australia, have signified that the treaty is in their interest by ratifying it.
Only eight more countries are required to ratify the CTBT for its entry into force (China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, United States). The treaty requires ratification by 44 of the states that participated in the negotiations in 1996 and that possessed nuclear power or research reactors at that time. China, which started to send data from its monitoring stations to the CTBTO on January 1, 2014, has said that if the U.S. ratifies the treaty it will follow. Diplomats around the world are convinced that other nations required for the treaty’s entry into force would then do so. This is clearly an issue on which the U.S. could resume its position of leadership. The U.S. might consider what it will wish it had done about the treaty if more countries, rogue or otherwise, begin to detonate nuclear test explosions again. The time to seriously reevaluate the merits of the treaty is now.