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News Analysis: Test Ban Infrastructure: A Concrete Reality
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Miles A. Pomper

VIENNA—Five years ago, the U.S. Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by a vote of 51-48, dashing hopes that a permanent ban on nuclear tests would soon be a global reality. The Bush administration has said that it does not plan to ask Congress to reconsider that decision. Even Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee, has hardly uttered a peep in favor of a treaty that he voted for in October 1999.

Advocates of the test ban worry that, if the next occupant of the White House does not push the Senate to reconsider its decision, the continued slow but steady growth in the number of CTBT signatories and ratifiers, now numbering 172 and 119, respectively, will ebb, killing any possibility that the treaty will enter into force.

Ultimately, they say, that could lead to the end of a nearly decade-old de facto global moratorium on nuclear testing. “The longer its entry into force is delayed, the more likely that nuclear testing will resume. Were this to happen, it would be a major setback in nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament efforts,” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a Sept. 23 speech to the UN General Assembly.

But Franca Padoani is not worrying about that. Padoani has more immediate things on her mind, such as figuring out how to secure a radionuclide monitoring station on an ice pack in the sea off of Antarctica.

After all, Padoani is not in the business of high politics. Rather, she is one of the chief architects of the International Monitoring System (IMS), a global infrastructure that was authorized when the CTBT was first opened for signature in September 1996. The construction of the IMS continues at a rapid pace despite the treaty’s delayed entry into force. Plans call for a system that will use 321 monitoring stations and four different technologies to detect nuclear tests, and well more than half of this system has essentially been completed. Even countries such as Israel, which have balked at other nuclear arms control accords, have shown a willingness to participate in the IMS. Also already in place is an International Data Center (IDC), which has begun to take the information collected by these technologies and distribute them to signatories.

The system’s global reach has already allowed it to pinpoint such phenomena as the disintegration of the space shuttle, the explosion’s in the Kursk submarine, and recent explosions in North Korea.

All of these efforts have been supported by the United States, which provides a little less than $20 million each year to the Vienna-based preparatory commission to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The preparatory commission, with an annual budget of about $90 million, began operation in 1997; a full-fledged CTBTO will begin operation only when the treaty becomes international law.

To be sure, the lack of U.S. support for the treaty has prevented several of its most important provisions from taking effect, most notably, provisions that would allow states-parties to seek short-notice on site inspections when they suspect another country has conducted a nuclear test. But U.S. officials, particularly in the intelligence community, have welcomed the additional information that the IMS and IDC are providing and will provide in the future.

Until now, therefore, the concrete reality behind a future CTBT has progressed even as uncertainties over the treaty’s future persist. Nevertheless, as the IMS moves toward completion, the United States elects a new president, and CTBT signatories pick an executive secretary for the preparatory commission, these fights are likely to intensify and become more decisive.

The International Monitoring System And International Data Center

Right now, however, Padoani and other members of the commission’s staff are busy establishing the IMS. Padoani’s responsibility as chief of the radionuclide monitoring section is to build a network of 80 radionuclide stations and 16 related laboratories ready to detect any nuclear explosions. These innovative stations are developing new technology that will sample large volumes of air to detect radioactive particles and noble gases released from atmospheric nuclear explosions and radioactive gases vented from underground and underwater nuclear explosions.

As of the end of 2003, 29 monitoring stations had been installed and another 18 were under construction, circling the globe from Antarctica to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. A board in Padoani’s office charts the system’s progress, displaying yellow flags where site surveys have been conducted, red flags where construction is underway, and blue flags for operating sites.

Radionuclide technology is one of only four overlapping networks that the IMS plans to use to monitor nuclear tests. Another network uses seismic technologies, which monitor the vibrations of the earth and seek to distinguish nuclear tests from other earth-shaking events such as earthquakes. This network will eventually have 50 primary stations and another 120 auxiliary stations that can be utilized on an as-needed basis. As of the end of last year, 31 of the primary stations and 87 of the auxiliary stations had been installed.

A third network of hydroacoustic stations uses underwater microphones attached to cables anchored to the seabed to pick out underwater explosions vast distances away. Five of the 11 planned hydroacoustic stations have been installed.

The fourth technology, infrasound, uses very sensitive microbarometers that employ low-frequency sound waves to pinpoint the location and size of an atmospheric explosion. The technology is used to distinguish between nuclear tests and natural phenomena such as meteorites, explosive volcanoes, and meteorological events as well as man-made phenomena such as re-entering space debris, rocket launches, and supersonic aircraft. By the end of last year, 23 of the 60 infrasound stations had been built.

For more than four years, computers at the commission’s headquarters have processed and distributed to a test group of state signatories the data received from seismic, acoustic, and infrasound stations. At the end of July, the commission’s Provisional Technical Secretariat marked a milestone: the 100,000th event to be included in the IDC’s daily Reviewed Event Bulletin, a product that describes the time, location, and magnitude of all events that have passed analyst inspection and quality assurance review and that meet specific minimum criteria.

Organizational Questions

Even as more monitoring systems are brought online, questions about the future shape of the preparatory commission remain unanswered. Wolfgang Hoffman, a German diplomat who has chaired the preparatory commission since it was inaugurated in 1997, is set to retire in July 2005. A successor is expected to be named in November. During this transition period, an external team will conduct a review and provide advice on how the organization should be restructured as it moves from developing an infrastructure to employing one. During Hoffman’s tenure, the commission has grown from an organization employing nine staff members to a staff of 273 personnel from 70 states.

In addition, the Bush administration has cut its assessed contribution to the organization by five percent as a protest to try and prevent funds from being spent on preparing for the on site inspections that are supposed to take place when the treaty enters into force. Although the practical effect to date has been slight, commission officials say that little by little, because of the U.S. decision and the failure of some other signatories to meet their financial commitments, the organization is accumulating a debt that may well crimp operations in future years.

The biggest question mark hanging over the future of the organization, however, remains whether the treaty will ever enter into force. To do so, 44 designated countries, including the United States, must ratify the treaty. To date, only 33 of those states have done so, although eight of the remaining 11 have signed it.

Earlier this year, the countries that have already ratified the CTBT asked Jaap Ramaker, a veteran Dutch diplomat, to serve as a liaison between those countries that have ratified the treaty and those that have not done so. (See ACT, June 2004.) Additionally, in September, 42 foreign ministers, including those from Australia, Finland, Japan, and the Netherlands, came together in a high-level effort to win support for the treaty (see box). With such support, organization officials are hoping that they can bring the number of holdouts below 10 by the end of the year. They had some good news Sept. 28 when another of the 44 countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, ratified the pact.

The largest question, however, remains whether a Kerry administration or a second Bush administration and a new Senate would take a different position on the test ban treaty. One recent sign has not been promising: the nomination of a key U.S. diplomat has been held up because of CTBT-related opposition in the Senate. Conservative Republicans there are pressing the Bush administration to formally repudiate the 1996 U.S. signature. So far, the Bush administration has refused to consider proposals that would alter the U.S. legal status vis-á-vis the treaty. (See ACT, September 2004.)

Commission officials stress that U.S. support is vital for forward movement. “The importance of this cannot be overestimated,” Hoffman said in an interview published in the Sept. 17 edition of Global Security Newswire. “Once the United States ratifies this treaty, then the other parts of the puzzle will fall into place,” he said.

Until it does, however, Padoani and her colleagues will continue to put together a system whose diplomatic construction at times seems as difficult as building a monitoring system on floating ice off of Antarctica.

Foreign Ministers Affirm CTBT Support

Claire Applegarth

Forty-two foreign ministers came together Sept. 23 in New York in a high-level effort to muster support for the stalled Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), despite opposition from the Bush administration. Led by the foreign ministers of Australia, Finland, Japan, and the Netherlands, 42 nations signed a common statement calling the CTBT “a major instrument in the field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation” and urging its ratification by all states.

The joint statement, released following a meeting convened during the annual UN General Assembly session, emphasized the importance of continued adherence to a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing in the absence of a binding treaty. Even so, the ministers said, the current moratorium “does not have the same permanent and legally binding effect as the entry into force of the Treaty.”

The 1996 treaty would prohibit all nuclear test explosions. It has been signed by 172 states and ratified by 119. Entry into force requires that a set of 44 nations with nuclear reactors must ratify. To date, only 33 such states have ratified it. China, Colombia, Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, the United States, and Vietnam have signed but not ratified the treaty. India, North Korea, and Pakistan are not yet signatories.






Posted: October 1, 2004