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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Project for the CTBT


The Project for the CTBT supports the work of NGOs and experts to build public and policymaker understanding of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Launched in 2008 at time of renewed interest in the United States on the treaty, the project’s purpose is to provide information on the history and issues surrounding the treaty and reports on key developments relating to nuclear testing, progress toward entry into force of the CTBT, and the work of the CTBT Organization (CTBTO).

Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, 202-463-8270 ext. 107 or Shannon Bugos, 202-463-8270 ext. 113


The Case for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Nuclear weapons testing is a dangerous and unnecessary vestige of the last century that the United States rejected almost 20 years ago. Following the end of the Cold War and after 1,030 nuclear tests, the United States ended new warhead production and halted nuclear testing in 1992.

In September 1996, the United States was the first nation to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which “prohibits any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion,” and establishes a global monitoring network and the option of short-notice, on-site inspections that improves capabilities to detect and deter cheating.

Today, there is no military requirement for new nuclear weapons capabilities that might require the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing. The U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories do not need nuclear explosive testing to maintain the effectiveness of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.

It is in U.S. national security interest to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent nuclear weapons testing by others, and improve U.S. and international capabilities to detect, deter, and respond to possible cheating. Even though the United States has already assumed most CTBT-related responsibilities, it cannot reap the full security benefits of the CTBT until the Senate approves the Treaty by a two-thirds majority.

President Barack Obama has declared his support for U.S. ratification of the CTBT as a key component of his broader international efforts to prevent the use and spread of nuclear weapons. A growing list of bipartisan leaders and security experts agree that by ratifying the CTBT, the U.S. stands to gain an important constraint on the ability of other states to build new and more deadly nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to American security.

As the Senate revisits the CTBT for the first time in more than a decade, it needs to consider the following ways in which the case for the CTBT has become significantly stronger:

CTBT’s Increasing National Security Value

Global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons are in jeopardy. The international legal framework built to stop the spread and use of nuclear weapons, held together by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is under stress. Now, unpredictable nations such as North Korea and Iran have active nuclear programs, and Pakistan has been leaking its nuclear weapons know-how.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT is an essential first step to rebuilding international support for measures to prevent the use and spread of nuclear weapons. In 1995, the U.S. and the other nuclear powers promised to deliver on the CTBT in exchange for the indefinite extension of the NPT. Action on the CTBT would give the United States more leverage to win support for tougher nuclear safeguards and more effective responses to cases of noncompliance.

A global verifiable ban on testing would constrain the ability of nuclear-armed states, such as China, to develop new and more deadly nuclear weapons. Without nuclear weapon test explosions, would-be nuclear-armed nations—like Iran—would not be able to proof test the more advanced, smaller nuclear warhead designs that could be used to arm ballistic missiles.

Proven Ability to Maintain the Arsenal

Over the past decade, the success of the Stockpile Stewardship Program has demonstrated that the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal can be maintained under a CTBT. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) have refurbished and recertified major warhead types without nuclear testing. Key plutonium parts in warheads have been shown to last 85-100 years, much longer than previously thought, and limited production capacity has been established to remanufacture new parts when needed, making new-design "replacement" warheads unnecessary.

The United States has no need to resume nuclear testing. It already has the most advanced and deadly nuclear arsenal in the world. The United States has conducted 1,030 nuclear tests, more than all other nations combined, including Russia (715) and China (45). Given this advantage, it is clearly in U.S. national security interests to prevent other nations from testing nuclear weapons.

Proven Ability to Verify Compliance

Today, no would-be cheater of the CTBT could confidently conduct an undetected nuclear explosion large enough to threaten U.S. security. The international verification system, together with U.S. national technical means of verification, will detect militarily significant tests. However, unless it ratifies the Treaty, the United States cannot take advantage of the international system’s full benefits, such as on-site inspections.

Over the past decade, national and international test monitoring capabilities have significantly improved. At the end of 1999, only 25% of the CTBT’s 337 monitoring stations had been built. As of 2012, 80% of the planned global verification network is now in place and transmitting information to the International Data Center in Vienna. North Korea’s nuclear test explosions in 2006 and 2009 demonstrated that the CTBT verification system is working well and can detect very small explosions with high confidence.

The Importance of U.S. Leadership

The CTBT has now been signed by 183 nations, including the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain and France, and ratified by 164, including Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and all of the United States’ NATO allies. The CTBT’s entry into force awaits ratification by eight states: the United States, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.

U.S. ratification would spur other key nations, such as China, India, and Pakistan, to ratify the Treaty and would reinforce the global taboo against nuclear testing. Without positive U.S. action on the CTBT, the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and the resumption of testing will only grow.

The Time for the CTBT is Now

U.S. approval of the CTBT would reinforce the global test moratorium and accelerate the Treaty’s formal entry into force, helping to constrain the ability of other nuclear-armed states to improve their nuclear bombs.

Equally important, U.S. ratification of the CTBT would reestablish strong U.S. leadership in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to additional nations and to terrorist groups. The CTBT would strengthen U.S. and international security for years to come.


History of Efforts for the CTBT

For decades, nuclear testing has been used to develop new nuclear warhead designs and demonstrate nuclear weapons capabilities by the world’s nuclear-armed states. A global halt to nuclear weapons testing was first proposed in 1954 by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as step toward ending the nuclear arms race and preventing proliferation.

A global halt to nuclear testing has been a central, bipartisan national security objective of the United States since the late 1950s, when President Dwight Eisenhower sought a comprehensive test ban. The United States and Russia halted nuclear testing from 1958 to 1960, but failed to conclude a permanent ban.

In 1962-63, President John F. Kennedy pursued comprehensive test ban talks with Russia, but the two sides could not agree on the number of on-site inspections and instead, the two sides agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater.

President Jimmy Carter again sought to negotiate a comprehensive test ban treaty with Russia from 1977-1980, but that effort also fell short as U.S.-Soviet relations soured after Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan.

In 1992, following the end of the Cold War and a Russian nuclear test moratorium, President George H. W. Bush announced a halt to the development of new types of nuclear warheads. That same year, Congress mandated a 9-month moratorium on nuclear weapon test explosions. In July 1993, President Bill Clinton extended the U.S. test moratorium.

In 1994, the world's nations finally came together to negotiate the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to help curb the spread of nuclear weapons and ensure an end to the nuclear arms competition.

In September 1996, the United States was the first nation to sign the CTBT, which prohibits all nuclear weapon test explosions or other nuclear explosions. The CTBT also establishes a global monitoring network called the International Monitoring System (IMS) and provides for the option of short-notice on-site inspections to detect and deter cheating.

The U.S. Senate declined to give its advice and consent to ratification when it briefly considered the CTBT in October 1999. Many Senators who voted "no" expressed concerns about the technical challenges of verification and the ability of the United States to maintain its arsenal without testing. Since then, significant advances in test ban monitoring and the nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program have addressed many of the concerns expressed during the first Senate debate.

In recent years, international support for the CTBT has grown. An increasing array of Republican and Democratic national security leaders including former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former National Security Advisor General Brent Scowcroft have all endorsed U.S. ratification of the CTBT.

On April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama said: "To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned."

There is neither the need nor the political support for renewed U.S. nuclear weapons testing, and it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to ratify the CTBT to prevent nuclear weapons testing by others.


The National and International Security Value of the CTBT

With or without the CTBT, it is highly unlikely that the United States will ever conduct another nuclear explosive test. There is no technical or military requirement to resume U.S. testing, nor the political will to do so.

On Nov. 28, 2011, Linton Brooks reiterarted this statement, saying "as a practical matter, it is almost certain that the United States will not test again. The political bar against testing is extremely high. I have been in and out of government for a long time. And in recent years I never met anybody who advocated that we seek authorization to return to testing." Brooks served as the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration under President George W. Bush from 2002-2007.

At the same time, it is in the U.S. interest to ensure that other nations do not resume nuclear testing, which could help them perfect new and more advanced types of nuclear weapons. Even though the United States has already assumed most CTBT-related responsibilities, it cannot reap the full security benefits of the CTBT until the Senate approves the treaty by a two-thirds majority.

The CTBT helps block new nuclear threats from emerging, thereby strengthening U.S. and global security. By banning all nuclear weapon test explosions, the CTBT makes it harder for nations that already possess nuclear weapons to perfect newer and more sophisticated nuclear weapons. For instance, a new round of Chinese nuclear weapon test explosions would enable China to miniaturize its warhead designs and allow China to place multiple warheads on its relatively small arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles. This would give China the ability to rapidly increase its long-range nuclear strike force, which is currently less than 40 weapons.

Without nuclear weapon test explosions, could-be nuclear-armed nations—like Iran—would not be able to develop and proof test the more advanced, smaller nuclear warhead designs that could fit on ballistic missiles.

As Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in October 2009: “the single most important reason to ratify the CTBT is to stop other countries from improving their arsenals.”

Ratification of the CTBT would restore U.S. leadership on nonproliferation and bolster efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states or terrorists. In 1995, the U.S. and the other nuclear powers promised to deliver on the CTBT in exchange for the indefinite extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. U.S. ratification of the CTBT is critical to achieving agreement on new measures to strengthen global nonproliferation rules, such as more effective international nuclear safeguards, tougher penalties against states that violate their commitments, and accelerated efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear material.

As Secretary of State Clinton said on Oct. 21, 2009, “Bringing the [CTBT] into force will strengthen and reenergize the global nonproliferation regime and, in doing so, enhance our own security….”

Ratification of the CTBT would improve U.S. capabilities to detect, deter, and respond to potential cheating. The United States’ capability to detect and deter possible clandestine nuclear testing by other states will be significantly greater with the CTBT in force than without it. U.S. ratification of the CTBT is essential to making short-notice, on-site inspections possible and maintaining long-term political and financial support from other nations for the operation of the CTBT’s International Monitoring System and International Data Center.

There is nothing to gain and much to lose by delaying action on the CTBT.While it might 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. Without the CTBT in force, concerns about clandestine nuclear testing might arise that could not be resolved in the absence of inspections provided for under the Treaty. Failure to achieve U.S. ratification of the CTBT would increase uncertainty and reduce U.S. security.


Stockpile Stewardship Under the CTBT

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992—a bipartisan policy maintained through four successive administrations. Since then, it has become clear that maintaining the reliability of proven U.S. nuclear warhead designs does not depend on nuclear test explosions.

The U.S. arsenal has been and will continue to be maintained without nuclear testing indefinitely through non-nuclear tests and evaluations, combined with the refurbishment of key components to previous design specifications. Since 1994, each warhead type in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal has been determined to be safe and reliable through a rigorous certification process instituted following the end of U.S. nuclear testing.

According to a 2002 National Academies of Science (NAS) panel that included three former nuclear weapons lab directors, age-related defects mainly related to non-nuclear components can be expected, "but nuclear testing is not needed to discover these problems and is not likely to be needed to address them."

For more than fifteen years, a nationwide infrastructure of nuclear weapons research, evaluation and manufacturing sites and laboratories has been maintained through the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP). Currently, the United States spends more than $7 billion annually on its Stockpile Stewardship Program, which includes nuclear weapons surveillance and maintenance, non-nuclear and subcritical nuclear experiments, sophisticated supercomputer modeling, and life-extension programs for the existing warhead types in the enduring U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Confidence in the ability to maintain U.S. warheads is increasing—not decreasing. A 2002 National Academy of Science (NAS) panel report found that the current Stockpile Stewardship Program provides the technical capabilities that are necessary to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear stockpile, "provided that adequate resources are made available...and are properly focused on this task." The newly updated 2012 NAS report on the CTBT reinforces this conclusion. The newly updated 2012 NAS report on the CTBT reinforces this conclusion.

The Obama administration’s unprecedented $88 billion, 10-year plan for upgrading the nuclear weapons complex should give senators greater confidence that there is a long-term strategy and more than enough funding to continue to maintain the U.S. arsenal effectively. The administration’s request of nearly $7.6 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons activities for fiscal year 2013 is five percent higher than the $7.2 billion appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2012.

As NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino recently told Arms Control Today, “[I]n my opinion, we have a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. There’s no need to conduct underground [nuclear] testing.”

In 2006 the Department of Energy announced that studies by Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories show that the plutonium primaries, or pits, of most U.S. nuclear weapons “will have minimum lifetimes of at last 85 years,” which is about twice as long as previous official estimates.

In their September 2009 report, the JASON independent technical review panel concluded that "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence." These findings indicate that new-design replacement warheads are not needed to maintain reliability.


Senate approval of the CTBT would further help to strengthen bipartisan support for effective stockpile stewardship efforts to ensure that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains effective without nuclear testing and without the production of newly-designed warheads. In the exceedingly unlikely event that the president of the United States decides to resume nuclear testing, the United States has the option of exercising the CTBT’s “supreme national interest” withdrawal clause.


Verification of the CTBT

Detecting a nuclear weapon test explosion has become so effective that no would-be cheater could be confident that a nuclear explosion that would adversely affect U.S. security would escape detection, thereby providing a reliable deterrent against cheating.

Verification capabilities will be even greater with the CTBT in force, which would include its global verification and monitoring network, as well as the option of short-notice on-site inspections (OSI), performed by the CTBTO. Through these mechanisms, the CTBT gives the U.S. tools otherwise unavailable to resolve compliance concerns and respond effectively to potential nuclear testing by other states.

The CTBT establishes a far-reaching International Monitoring System (IMS) to detect potential nuclear explosions using four technologies – seismic, hydroacoustic, radionuclide, and infrasound, including a new array of highly-capable “noble gas” monitoring stations that can detect minute amounts of the radioactive gases emitted by underground explosions into the atmosphere. More than 80% of the planned test ban monitoring network is operational and nearly an additional 10% is being built.

The CTBT provides for monitoring stations inside Russia, China, and other sensitive locations, including some places where the United States could not gain access on its own. (Click here to explore the CTBTO’s interactive map of IMS stations.)

The International Data Center (IDC) based in Vienna collects and analyzes information from the IMS and disseminates the raw and processed data to member states for their own evaluation.


The treaty also allows the United States and other member states to monitor CTBT compliance by using their own, highly-sophisticated satellites and other national technical means. Tens of thousands of high-quality civilian seismic stations around the world provide further detection capabilities.

Today, nuclear test explosion monitoring capabilities are excellent and getting better. During the Senate debate on the CTBT in 1999, some critics claimed that the IMS could only monitor for underground explosions at yields at or above one kiloton TNT equivalent. In reality, actual nuclear test explosion monitoring capabilities were much better and have only improved since then.

A 2002 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel determined that “underground nuclear explosions can be reliably detected and can be identified as explosions, using IMS data down to a yield of 0.1 kilotons (100 tons) in hard rock if conducted anywhere in Europe, Asia, North Africa and North America.”

Advances in regional seismology have provided additional confidence. For some locations (such as Russia’s former nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya) the use of new seismic arrays and regionally located seismic stations has lowered the detection threshold to below 0.01 kilotons (10 tons).

North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 demonstrated that the CTBT verification system is working well and can detect very small explosions. When North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapon test explosion in October 2006, the extensive network of sensors detected the relatively low-yield (0.6 kiloton) blast at 31 seismic stations in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

No would-be cheater could be confident that a nuclear explosion that could possibly threaten U.S. security would escape detection. Although very low-yield nuclear tests cannot be detected with absolute certainty, countries that might be able to carry out such clandestine testing already possess advanced nuclear weapons and could add little, with additional testing, to the threats they already pose to the United States. Countries of lesser nuclear test experience and/or design sophistication would be unable to conceal tests in the numbers and yields required to develop advanced warheads. It is strongly in the U.S. interest to stop all other states from nuclear testing.

The CTBT would provide, for the first time, the option of short-notice, on-site inspections in response to signs of a suspicious event. In the event of a suspected nuclear explosion that cannot be resolved by remote sensing means, CTBT states may call for a short-notice, on-site inspection (OSI) of a suspected test site—an important deterrent against potential clandestine nuclear testing.

During the Senate debate in 1999, some critics complained that because the CTBT requires 30 of 51 nations on its Executive Council to agree to an on-site inspection, states unfriendly to the United States could block such inspections. In reality, the CTBT’s on-site inspection provisions were established to balance the need for rapid response to a suspected test against the possibility of “frivolous or abusive” inspections. The approval of 30 out of 51 members of the CTBTO’s Executive Council was designed to give nations like the United States confidence that OSIs would be approved as needed, but not by a small minority with questionable motives.

To protect national security interests unrelated to the inspections, states are allowed to restrict access to parts of the inspection area no larger than four square kilometers or a total of no more than 50 sq. km. However, if an inspected state restricts access it must provide alternative ways for the inspection team to carry out its mission. If the bar for inspections had been set much lower, or if no allowances had been made for unrelated national security interests, one could imagine that there might be concerns in the Senate that CTBT on-site inspections could unduly infringe on U.S. sovereignty.

The CTBT Bans all nuclear test explosions. Some CTBT critics erroneously believe that because the treaty does not define a "nuclear test explosion," some countries, such as Russia, consider hydronuclear tests (which are in fact very low-yield nuclear explosions) to be a "permitted" activity under the treaty.

In reality, the negotiating record of the treaty is clear that all nuclear explosions (any energy yield from a self-sustaining chain reaction) are prohibited by the CTBT. The Russian government made it clear when it ratified the CTBT in 2000 that: “Qualitative modernization of nuclear weapons is only possible through full-scale and hydronuclear tests with the emission of fissile energy, the carrying out of which directly contradicts the CTBT.” In other words, the CTBT establishes a “zero-yield” worldwide prohibition on nuclear test explosions.


Entry Into Force of the CTBT

Though global support for the CTBT is widespread, formal entry into force requires that a specific group of 44 states named in Annex II of the treaty have ratified.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT is essential—but not sufficient—to win the support of the other remaining Annex II states needed for the treaty’s formal entry into force: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.

China, which has already signed the CTBT, will also likely ratify if the United States does.

The prospect of U.S. ratification of the CTBT has already begun to spur new thinking in India. In an August 30, 2009 interview in The Hindu, India’s then-National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan said: “As of now, we are steadfast in our commitment to the moratorium. At least there is no debate in the internal circles about this.” Asked if India would have no problem signing the treaty if the others whose ratification is required for the CTBT to enter into force — especially the U.S. and China — did so, Mr. Narayanan responded: “I think we need to now have a full-fledged discussion on the CTBT. We’ll cross that hurdle when we come to it.”

Global support for early entry into force of the CTBT is strong. On September 24, 2009, representatives from more than 100 states, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a large number of other Foreign Ministers gathered at the UN Headquarters in New York and reaffirmed their support for action to achieve the entry into force of the CTBT.

Clinton reaffirmed the Obama administration's commitment to "work with the Senate to ratfy the CTBT" and called on other key states to ratify the treaty. "As long as we are confronted with the prospect of nuclear testing by others, we will face the potential threat of newer, more powerful, and more sophisticated weapons that could cause damage beyond our imagination," she said.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT would also reinforce the taboo against testing and increase the costs for any state that might consider doing so. While it might be possible to sustain the voluntary moratoria undertaken by the nuclear testing states for some years, the risk of a resumption of testing other nuclear weapons armed states will only grow over time. Also, concerns about clandestine nuclear testing might arise that could not be resolved in the absence of inspections provided for under the treaty. Failure to ratify the CTBT would increase uncertainty and weaken U.S. security.


Key Resources

For more information on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we recommend the following resources:

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