March 1st was the fifty-fifth anniversary of the test of the largest US nuclear bomb. Code-named Castle Bravo, the 15 megaton explosion in the atmosphere of a new type of nuclear weapon unexpectedly inflicted radiation disease on 239 near-by islanders and 23 Japanese fishermen, leading to 47 deaths from related complications. Although the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty drove testing underground, thus saving the world from massive radiation poisoning, the US, Russia, and six other nations conducted more than 2,000 tests all told until a voluntary moratorium took hold in the 1990s. Only North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon in this century.
After decades of off-again, on-again negotiations, an agreement to end all nuclear testing, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, was completed in 1996. Although ratified by 148 states, including France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, the Treaty requires that 44 named states ratify before it enters into force and, so far, only 35 of them have done so. The hold-outs include, most importantly, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and … the United States. President Clinton requested the Senate ratify the Treaty in 1999 but spent virtually no resources or political capital preparing the ground. Not surprisingly, the Treaty was defeated.
The Test Ban is important to the United States for any number of reasons. China has said it will ratify once it is confident that the United States will do so. China has been modernizing its nuclear forces in recent years and, having lagged behind the US and Russia in nuclear testing, potentially would have a great deal to gain from new tests.
Entry into force of the Test Ban would symbolize the end of the nuclear arms race; it means that nations recognize that the dangers of nuclear weapons exceed any possible benefits and that states will therefore no longer pursue the development of new types of weapons. As such, it is an important step toward fulfillment of the commitment by the five declared nuclear weapon states contained in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), “… cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date…” States that foreswore developing nuclear weapons in exchange for this commitment are losing patience with the lack of progress. The 2000 and 2005 Review Conferences were extremely contentious and preliminary meetings point to a real dust-up at the June 2010 Review unless something dramatic is placed on the table. Ratification of the Test Ban by the US and China would be a very positive step. Once the US and China ratify, moreover, pressures on the other hold-outs will grow exponentially.
Candidate Obama stated several times that he would seek ratification of the Test Ban, but many other problems are clamoring for his attention and there could be a temptation to put off what some might predict will be a contentious issue. This would be a mistake; it’s important that the five declared nuclear powers go into the NPT Review with the Test Ban Treaty a done deal – meaning US ratification needs to be completed within a year or so. It should not be difficult.
The Treaty was defeated ten years ago ostensibly because there were doubts about whether it could be verified. Since then, verification capabilities have improved immensely. Not only is the US better prepared to detect nuclear tests world-wide with its own resources, but an international commission has been busy installing a world-wide network of hundreds of monitoring sites reporting into central data centers through dedicated communications links. Today, there’s no question that any underground test would be detected, as was shown when the world immediately detected, localized, and characterized North Korea’s 2006 test that resulted in an explosive yield of only 0.6 kilotons. As a first step, the Administration should put together a bipartisan commission of seismic experts under the guidance of the White House Science Advisor, John Holdren, to put this spurious issue to rest.
The more serious question is how to maintain a safe, secure, and credible stockpile of nuclear weapons without testing. But this should not be an issue either. Just before Christmas 2008, the Departments of Defense and Energy issued a letter describing their recommendations to maintain a reliable stockpile. None of the items on the list, such as keeping close watch on the status of existing warheads so that problems may be identified in a timely manner, maintaining modest capabilities to produce specialized components and materials necessary to refurbish older warheads, and sustaining the necessary specialized personnel in modern facilities, should be controversial. The one possible sticking point is whether the US should develop a “reliable, replacement warhead.” This Bush Administration initiative was turned down twice by the Congress. The idea, though, is to ensure that US warheads remain reliable by developing the potential, if necessary, to replace older warheads that can no longer be refurbished with a warhead that is simpler in design, and thus not so prone to technical glitches, and that incorporates modern electronic controls for safety and security. This can be done on a case-by-case basis, as necessary, without developing a new warhead, as had been envisioned by the previous administration.
Indeed, people concerned about the reliability of the US nuclear stockpile should view Test Ban ratification as a golden opportunity. For the past eight years, the Bush Administration and largely Republican congresses funded the so-called “stockpile stewardship” programs below the levels most of these experts believe are desirable. Can they expect more generous appropriations from a Democratic president committed to deep nuclear reductions and overwhelmingly Democratic congresses facing soaring deficits? Ratification of the Treaty provides the opportunity for a deal – ratification in exchange for a serious commitment to “stockpile stewardship” programs at appropriate levels of funding.
Consultations with key members of the Senate should make clear to the Administration what is required to secure ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban. Given the growing bipartisan support for eliminating nuclear weapons all together, it would not be surprising if, with desirable commitments to programs to ensure the safety and reliability of the US stockpile, it proves possible to secure 80 votes for the Test Ban, far less the necessary 67. It is long past time for the US to ratify this Treaty and regain the high ground in the proliferation debate
Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center and a Stimson Distinguished Fellow currently working on developing solutions for the nuclear threat.