Term Limits for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Ratification?

Upshot-Knothole Grable nuclear test. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Here’s a way to bridge the gap between test-ban supporters and detractors.

In 2009, in Prague, President Obama pledged his administration would “immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” (CTBT). This August, it was reported that since there was no progress in seven years, the president would seek a United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for an end to nuclear testing. This action only temporarily bypasses a debate on ratification in the U.S. Senate, and will nevertheless open a new round in the already bloody fight between supporters and opponents of the CTBT. In the unlikely event that the Senate takes up the CTBT debate in the first two years of the next administration, the probable outcome is still no ratification. A path has not been found to bridge the bitter divide between those who support and those who oppose passage of the CTBT.

Supporters believe that U.S. adoption of the CTBT will slow the spread of nuclear weapons and strengthen the resolve of Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories to take robust actions against those who seek to acquire weapons, without risking the safety or reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Supporters correctly underscore the cumulative risk that the existence of any nuclear weapons presents for accident, unauthorized use and theft. Opponents believe that with appropriate measures, these risks are acceptable compared to foregoing nuclear testing forever in an uncertain world. Opponents also doubt that U.S. accession to the treaty will dissuade some countries, such as North Korea, or subnational groups, such as ISIS, from pursuing the bomb.

The CTBT debate has gone on so long and with such intensity that it is hard to avoid the impression that the proponents and opponents would rather fight than win. It has become a symbolic issue. Proponents no longer claim that testing is necessary for a country to acquire or be perceived to have acquired a nuclear capability—e.g., Israel. Opponents have greatly reduced their concern about CTBT “cheating” (the clandestine testing of a low-yield nuclear device in an underground cavity that is seismically decoupled from the surrounding earth), due to the deployment and operation of the nuclear global seismic detection network.

Moreover, even if the United States ratifies the CTBT, Annex 2 of the 1996 treaty requires forty-four nations to ratify the treaty before it enters into force. Six of those nations have signed but not ratified (China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Israel and the United States); three have yet to sign (North Korea, India and Pakistan); it is unlikely all will ratify in the foreseeable future. Over the years, we have also learned that it is possible, although not originally expected, that diplomacy can influence countries that have acquired, or are moving to acquire, nuclear weapons to turn away from the bomb without the CTBT—for example, South Africa, states of the former Soviet Union and, most recently, Iran.

As a strictly technical matter, validation of the integrity of the nuclear stockpile can be accomplished only by comparing the predictions of DOE weapons laboratories scientists to detailed measurements from a nuclear test. However, there is no rush to carry out a nuclear test and much reason to continue the nuclear test moratorium. An early U.S. nuclear test could invite the Russians and Chinese, who are ramping up their nuclear delivery systems, to carry out an extended test series to perfect their nuclear weapons. Both supporters and opponents of the CTBT share the view that in the near term, the conflict situations in which the United States may become engaged can be met exclusively with conventional weapons, so for the time being, the U.S. nuclear deterrent is credible for the range of contingencies that are likely to be encountered. Thus, the prevailing political judgment is that it is advantageous for U.S. national security not to engage in testing that might encourage other countries to do so, or to move more rapidly to acquiring a nuclear capability and forgo the level of technical validation that can come only from testing.

In the absence of nuclear tests, the United States has relied on two mechanisms to assure the continued credibility of its nuclear weapons stockpile: an extensive science-based stockpile stewardship program, and a formal annual certification process.

The stockpile stewardship program, managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, combines advanced computation and simulation and modeling with measurements from DOE experimental facilities, such as Lawrence Livermore National Ignition Facility, to acquire the technical knowledge needed to answer questions about the technical status of the stockpile. A testing series that collects empirical measurements makes little sense without a sophisticated stockpile stewardship program. So a sophisticated stockpile stewardship program makes sense with or without a testing moratorium, although its activities will differ under each regime.

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