Banning Nuclear Explosions: A Test-Ban Treaty Primer

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When it was passed by the UN in 1996, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty  (CTBT) was seen as a crucial step for nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.  Adding to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that banned testing in the atmosphere, underwater or outer space, the CTBT prohibits all nuclear explosions in all environments. The thinking was simple: if states can’t test nuclear weapons, they are less likely to develop them. The politics, however, turned out to be complicated.

The 44 countries that hold nuclear technology must sign and ratify the treaty before it can enter into force.  Nine are still missing:  China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States, which signed the Treaty in 1996 but has not yet ratified. That might change soon, however, as the Obama administration makes a push for Congress to sign up..   This week in Vienna, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which runs the monitoring and verification regime for the treaty, will hold a scientific meeting. Battleland caught up with Tibor Toth, the Hungarian head of the CTBTO, who offered a primer on the treaty.

TIME:  This is a crucial time for the CTBT. In 2009, Hillary Clinton told a CTBT conference that “It has been a long time since our government was represented as this conference. We are glad to be back.” What needs to happen now for the treaty it to come into force? How important is U.S. ratification?
Toth:  Although not yet in force, the CTBT is already a success.  More than 2000 nuclear tests were conducted before the Treaty opened for signature in 1996.  Since then there have been just six (two each by India, Pakistan and North Korea), all unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT is vital. It would be leading by example, and going a long way towards building international support and cooperation for nuclear non-proliferation. Experience from other arms control treaties has shown us that U.S. ratification prompts other key states to follow suit, and many analysts believe China and Israel would do so in the case of the CTBT.

TIME:    One of the arguments many Republicans in the U.S. have had against the CTBT is that the technology is insufficient to properly monitor other nations. Can you explain how monitoring and enforcement works? And how confident are you that verification is no longer an issue?

Toth:  When the U.S. Senate first considered ratification in 1999, the CTBTO had existed for just two years and only a handful of stations were in place. Today we have 281 monitoring facilities around the globe: that’s more than 80% of the final 337 we are aiming for.Four different technologies monitor the planet in synergy around the clock for the slightest sign of a nuclear explosion: seismic stations probe the ground for shockwaves, infrasound and hydroacoustic sensors listen for sound waves in the atmosphere and the oceans, and radionuclide stations sniff the air. The latter need just a few radioactive atoms to raise alarm bells.

For example, although not fully established at the time, our monitoring system detected the North Korean nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 quickly and accurately. Less than two hours after the tests were conducted, member states received preliminary information on time, location, depth and magnitude of the tests. Meanwhile, sensor technology and data analysis have improved immeasurably since the system was designed in the 1990s. That’s why I’m fully confident that the CTBT can and will be verified.  And I’m not alone.  Just recently former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz said:  “[My] fellow U.S. Republicans may have been right to vote down the nuclear test-ban treaty a decade ago, but they’d be wrong to scuttle it again as President Barack Obama pushes for Senate ratification.”

TIME:    The CTBT has other applications, too, such as the detecting volcanic ash cloud and radiation leaks from nuclear plant accidents. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Did the Fukushima disaster teach you anything about the CTBT’s monitoring sensitivity? Does it provide further evidence that verification would be assured?

Toth:  To start with the last question – indeed it does. Most of our 63 radionuclide stations picked up minute traces of radioactive emissions from Fukushima as they first spread eastward, then lingered in the northern hemisphere and finally dispersed around the entire globe. Our radionuclide stations are designed to register minute amounts of radioactive particles and noble gases – down to just a few atoms. The system’s sensitivity is second-to-none: it can detect a concentration of 0.1 g of radioactive Xenon evenly distributed within the entire atmosphere of the Earth. Another example: a rooftop detector at the CTBTO’s headquarters in Vienna still picks up traces of emissions from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Our International Monitoring System is already being used for tsunami warning purposes. Eight tsunami warning centres, mainly in the Indo-Pacific region, currently receive real-time data on earthquakes and ensuing tsunamis, enabling them to issue warnings much quicker than before.  The other potential applications are multi-fold – as well as providing crucial information on nuclear accidents and warning air traffic of volcano eruptions, they include studies on the Earth’s crust, research on ocean processes and marine life, monitoring ice shelf break-up and meteorite impacts, and even aiding plane crash investigation.

TIME:  In the past, India and Pakistan have argued that the CTBT merely formalizes nuclear discrimination, allowing the big five to maintain modern weapons but preventing others from developing an adequate nuclear deterrent.  What are the chances of getting South Asia to sign up?

Toth:  India and Pakistan have moved in the direction of increased cooperation with the international community. Just like the 182 countries that are already members of the CTBT, I am optimistic that India and Pakistan will come to the conclusion that the CTBT is in their national and collective security interest. It was, after all, India that gave birth to the idea of a test ban when, in 1954, President Jawaharlal Nehru proposed a “standstill agreement” on nuclear testing. Both India and Pakistan have observed their moratoria on nuclear testing for 13 years now. A CTBT in force would freeze the global status quo in qualitative nuclear weapons development.

The CTBT is a non-discriminatory Treaty. It imposes exactly the same obligations on all states, regardless of whether they possess nuclear weapons or not, or whether they are parties to the NPT or not. The norm it imposes is simple, straightforward and the same for all: No nuclear testing. Nowhere. By no one.

TIME. What about the argument that disarmament requires the U.S. and Russia to modernize its weapons in order to go to smaller forces, which requires testing.  Is that an obstacle to ratification?

Toth:  Common sense, as well as historical examples from the Cold War, tells us that a return to nuclear testing by either Russia or the U.S. would seriously damage the nuclear arms control regime and almost certainly set off a new arms race and an increase in the numbers of nuclear weapons.

Most countries, including  Russia and the U.S., subscribe to the argument that deep reductions in nuclear arsenals and a total ban on nuclear testing go hand in hand.  On many occasions, the directors of the national laboratories in the U.S. responsible for the stewardship of the nuclear arsenal (LANL, LLNL, SNL) have testified before Congress and submitted reports to the effect that no further nuclear testing is needed.  They say that advances in simulation technologies and other techniques are enough to ensure that a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal can be maintained well into the future. As for Russia, it joined the CTBT more than ten years ago, in 2000.  Both the U.S. and Russia have been abiding by their unilaterally declared moratoria for almost 20 years now.