Time to Move Forward on the Test Ban Treaty

Daryl G. Kimball

A ban on nuclear testing has long been and continues to be a key part of a comprehensive, effective U.S. nuclear risk reduction strategy. Four years ago on April 5, President Barack Obama said in Prague, “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.”

Obama has consistently expressed support for U.S. reconsideration and ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits all nuclear test explosions anywhere.

Unfortunately, the administration has not yet launched the kind of effort necessary to achieve this long-sought and still vital nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation objective. Now is the time for the president to begin that effort.

U.S. ratification is essential to close the door on nuclear testing. Action by Washington would likely trigger reconsideration and ratification of the treaty by China, India, and Pakistan, which also must ratify the CTBT before the treaty can formally enter into force.

Gaining the necessary 67 Senate votes in support of ratification of the CTBT remains difficult, but is within reach. “As we look towards ratification of this treaty,” acting U.S. Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said in a March 20 speech, “we acknowledge that the process will not be easy.” Nothing in Washington ever is.

But since the Senate’s brief debate on and rejection of the CTBT 13 years ago, the arguments raised by treaty opponents have been addressed; and a wide range of national security leaders, including former skeptics, now support the treaty.

On March 8, George Shultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, said, “Yes, I clearly think we should ratify that treaty. A senator might have been right to vote against it when it was first put forward and right to vote for it now.”

The technical and strategic case for the CTBT is stronger than ever. Today, the U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program is more successful and better funded than ever before. Even with mandatory cutbacks in U.S. federal spending, the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories will continue to have approximately 10 percent more funding for maintaining and extending the service lives of existing U.S. nuclear warhead types than they did prior to 2009.

The combination of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s International Monitoring System and U.S. national monitoring capabilities, along with tens of thousands of civilian seismic monitoring stations, ensures that no potential CTBT violator could be confident that a nuclear explosion of military utility would escape detection.

With the CTBT in force, established nuclear-weapon states, including China, would not be able to proof-test new nuclear warhead designs; newer nuclear-armed nations, including North Korea, would find it far more difficult to build more-advanced warhead types; and emerging nuclear states, such as Iran, would encounter greater obstacles in fielding a reliable arsenal. With the option of short-notice, on-site inspections, states could better detect and deter testing.

Last year, Siegfried Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, underscored that “it is critical to erect as many barriers as possible to the resumption of testing. Ratification of the CTBT and its entry into force is the most important such barrier.”

The latest North Korean nuclear test explosion makes it all the more important that the major nuclear-armed states, particularly the United States and China, reinforce the global taboo against testing by completing the ratification process themselves.

U.S. and Chinese ratification of the treaty also is an essential part of strengthening the credibility of their commitments in the action plan adopted at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, which calls for early entry into force of the CTBT. Delay and dithering will diminish Washington’s ability to forestall future nuclear arms competition, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Korean peninsula.

A closer, serious look by senators should make it clear that a global, verifiable test ban treaty has been and continues to be in the United States’ interest. But it will take presidential leadership and a high-level, sustained effort, like the campaign that led to Senate approval of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2010 and the effort to win approval for the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, to win the necessary support for the CTBT.

Fifty years ago, on April 24, 1963, President John Kennedy pressed hard for a test ban accord on the grounds that it would “prevent diffusion of nuclear weapons.” Today, U.S. leadership on the CTBT is still a vital way to head off proliferation risks and bolster international security in the years ahead. It is past time to move on the CTBT.