Reconsider the Nuclear Test Ban

Daryl G. Kimball

Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton asked Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to review issues surrounding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the aftermath of the Senate’s 1999 rejection of the treaty. His 2001 report concluded that “the advantages of the Test Ban Treaty outweigh any disadvantages, and thus that ratification would increase national security. For the sake of future generations, it would be unforgivable to neglect any reasonable action that can help prevent nuclear proliferation, as the Test Ban Treaty clearly would.”

Today, a growing, bipartisan list of national security leaders agrees that it is past time to heed the general’s advice and reconsider the value of the CTBT. After 1,030 U.S. nuclear test explosions, there is simply no technical or military rationale for
the United States to resume nuclear explosive testing. At the same time, U.S. ratification of the treaty would reduce the risk that other countries might conduct nuclear tests that could improve their nuclear capabilities.

In China’s case, a new round of test explosions would allow it to miniaturize warhead designs and put multiple warheads on its relatively small arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles—a move that could allow a rapid increase in its nuclear strike capability. Without nuclear weapons test explosions, potential nuclear-armed countries such as Iran would not be able to proof-test the more advanced, smaller nuclear warhead designs needed to deliver such weapons using ballistic missiles.

Given Tehran’s advancing uranium-enrichment and missile capabilities, it is important to establish additional barriers against a sophisticated Iranian nuclear weapons capability in the years ahead.

U.S. action on the CTBT would prompt a chain reaction of ratifications by the eight other holdout states, including China and India, and advance the prospects for entry into force.

Yet, in order to explode the myths and misperceptions that have blocked progress toward U.S. ratification in the past, President Barack Obama must step up his efforts and engage the Senate in an in-depth dialogue on the treaty. For their part, all senators must take their national security responsibility seriously and thoroughly review the new evidence that has accumulated in favor of approving the CTBT.

For instance, in 1992 then-Rep. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) claimed, “[A]s long as we have a nuclear deterrent, we have got to test it in order to ensure that it is safe and it is reliable.” Now it is abundantly clear that this assertion is wrong.

The nuclear weapons laboratory directors report they now have a deeper understanding of the arsenal than ever before. Since 1994, each warhead type in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal has been determined to be safe and reliable; life extension programs have refurbished and modernized major warhead types. A 2009 study by JASON, the independent technical review panel, concluded that the “lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.” Age-related defects in non-nuclear components can be expected, but nuclear explosive testing is not needed to discover these problems or address them.

The Obama administration’s unprecedented $85 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 $7.6 billion request for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons activities for fiscal year 2012 is almost 19 percent higher than the $6.4 billion appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2010. 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.”

Despite a decade of advances in national and international nuclear monitoring capabilities, Sen. Kyl and a few other critics repeat the age-old charge that the absence of clandestine tests cannot be verified with absolute certainty. This argument misses the point on verification and implies that low-yield tests are worth the high risk of getting caught. No would-be cheater could be confident that a nuclear explosion of sufficient yield to possibly threaten U.S. security would escape detection.

The United States’ ability to detect and deter possible clandestine nuclear testing will only increase with the CTBT’s global monitoring network and the option of short-notice on-site inspections. Many of the 337 monitoring stations are inside Russia, China, and other sensitive locations—places where the United States simply cannot gain access on its own.

Failure to ratify the CTBT diminishes the United States’ ability to detect, deter, and confront proliferators. The United States stands to lose nothing while gaining an important constraint on the nuclear weapons capabilities of others that could pose a threat to U.S. security. The time to reconsider the CTBT is now.