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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Why We Don't Need To Resume Nuclear Testing
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Daryl G. Kimball

Twenty years ago this month, the Berlin Wall came down, hastening the end of the Cold War. Less than three years later, Moscow and Washington agreed to halt nuclear testing. In 1996, after more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions, the world’s nations concluded the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in order to prevent proliferation and help end the nuclear arms race.

Today, a growing bipartisan majority of national security leaders and experts agrees that, by ratifying the CTBT, the United States stands to gain important national security benefits by constraining the ability of other states to build new and more deadly nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to U.S. security.

Since the Senate’s 1999 rejection of the CTBT, there have been significant advances in the Stockpile Stewardship Program and nuclear test monitoring that should address earlier concerns that led many senators to vote no. President Barack Obama has called for the reconsideration of the treaty and pledged to work intensively with senators so that they are fully briefed on the latest technical and intelligence assessments before the CTBT comes before the Senate sometime in 2010.

Unfortunately, some pro-testers are stuck in the past. In his October 21 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Why We Need to Test Nuclear Weapons,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) relies on several old and misleading arguments against the CTBT. For instance, Kyl claims that “concerns over aging and reliability [of the U.S. arsenal] have only grown.”

In fact, confidence in the ability to maintain U.S. warheads is increasing through advances in computer modeling, new experimental facilities, and studies that show that weapons plutonium is not affected by aging for 85 years or more. 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. Life Extension Programs have refurbished and modernized major warhead types and, according to new independent studies, can continue to do so indefinitely.

Despite powerful U.S. national capabilities and a decade of advances in international monitoring capabilities, Kyl also repeats the age-old charge that clandestine tests cannot be detected with absolute certainty. This argument misses the point on verification and implies that low-yield tests are worth the high risk of getting caught. Those countries that are best able to conduct such clandestine testing successfully already possess advanced nuclear weapons of a number of types. Additional testing would do little to increase the threat these countries already pose to the United States. Countries with less nuclear-test experience or design sophistication would be unable to conceal tests in the numbers and yields required to master advanced warheads.

The United States’ capability to detect and deter possible cheating by other countries will be significantly greater with the CTBT and its global verification and monitoring network than without it. North Korea has provided two recent real-world tests of U.S. and global monitoring capabilities. In October 2006, the International Monitoring System easily detected Pyongyang’s relatively low-yield (0.6 kiloton) nuclear explosion at 22 seismic stations. Telltale radioactive gases from this test were also detected by South Korea and the United States, as well as one of the international monitoring network’s radionuclide monitoring stations 4,600 miles away in Canada. North Korea’s second test in May 2009 was detected by 61 seismic stations. Kyl has tried to suggest that because radionuclide particles from the second test were not detected, the monitoring system failed. In fact, the seismic evidence alone would have provided a firm basis and precise geographical information for on-site inspections.

Another misleading charge from Kyl and others is that because the treaty does not define “nuclear test explosion,” some states, such as Russia, believe very low-yield “hydronuclear” tests are permitted. Wrong again. The record is clear: the CTBT bans “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.” As the Russian government explained to the Duma in 2000, “[F]ull-scale and hydronuclear tests with the emission of fissile energy…directly contradict the CTBT.”

Ignoring years of evidence to the contrary, Kyl asserts that ratification of the CTBT has no relationship to U.S. nonproliferation efforts. Kyl, who argued for continued nuclear testing in the 1990s, overlooks the fact that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) would not likely have been renewed in 1995 without the pledge from the United States and the others to stop testing and support the CTBT. If Washington does not follow though, its leverage to strengthen nuclear safeguards, tighten controls on nuclear weapons-related technology, and isolate states that do not follow the rules will be weakened.

It is time to finally recognize that nuclear testing is a dangerous and unnecessary vestige of the past. The Senate’s reconsideration of the CTBT should be based on an honest and up-to-date analysis of the facts and issues at stake.