"[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
June 1, 2018
U.S. Officials Reaffirm Support for CTBT
Share this

By Shervin Taheran

A group of senior U.S. officials from the State, Energy, and Defense departments last month reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force, even as one of the officials made clear that the administration would not be sending the treaty to the Senate for approval in the near future.

Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said at a Sept. 15 event at the U.S. Institute of Peace that ratification of the CTBT would “help to enhance our leadership role in nonproliferation and strengthen our hand in pursuing tough actions against suspected proliferators. That is more important than ever in our current global environment.”

But she said the Obama administration “has no intention of rushing into this or demanding premature [Senate] action before we have had a thorough and rigorous discussion and debate.” 

The current priorities, Gottemoeller said, are “education” and “a healthy, open dialogue” with senators, rather than setting a timeline.

The United States signed the CTBT in 1996, when the pact was opened for signature. The Clinton administration submitted the treaty to the Senate three years later. On Oct. 13, 1999, the Senate rejected the treaty by a vote of a 51-48. Treaty approval requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

Several speakers at the event, which was organized by the Arms Control Association, Green Cross International, and the Washington embassies of Canada and Kazakhstan, emphasized changes in the landscape since the 1999 vote. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz declared that “[t]he world will be a safer and more secure place if nuclear testing is relegated to the pages of history” and said there had been “enormous progress” over the past 15 years on two key technical issues from the 1999 debate: ensuring the reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and verifying that countries are not covertly violating their no-testing commitment.

With regard to the first point, Moniz said that the directors of U.S. national laboratories “believe that they actually understand more about how nuclear weapons work now than during the period of nuclear testing.”

The United States has not conducted a nuclear weapon test explosion since September 1992. To ensure the readiness of U.S. nuclear warheads, the Energy Department has carried out a program known as stockpile stewardship to monitor, replace, and refurbish key components of the warheads in the nuclear stockpile. 

Moniz also cited progress in the global verification system that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is putting in place. 

A 2012 report by a National Academy of Sciences committee said stockpile stewardship had been “more successful than was anticipated in 1999.” The report found that “U.S. national monitoring and the [CTBTO] International Monitoring System has improved to levels better than predicted in 1999.” (See ACT, April 2012.)

At the Sept. 15 event, Andrew Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, said the United States is “not even considering” a resumption of nuclear testing. 

Nevertheless, he said, the U.S. government is not prepared to shut down its nuclear testing facilities in Nevada. “I would expect that if we can get ratification and entry into force [of the CTBT], those facilities would be closed. But there is a desire to keep at least a limited readiness until the treaty enters into force,” he said.

Weber is the staff director of the Nuclear Weapons Council, through which the Defense and Energy departments coordinate management of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Under terms outlined in Annex 2 of the CTBT, 44 specified countries must ratify the treaty to bring it into force. The United States is one of eight countries on that list that have not ratified the pact. The other seven are China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. In her remarks, Gottemoeller reiterated the U.S. position that “there’s no reason for the remaining Annex 2 states to wait for the United States before completing their own ratification processes.”

In his closing remarks at the Sept. 15 event, CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo said that although it is important to be patient in the effort to bring the CTBT into force, “we have to be mindful of those who have signed and ratified this treaty long ago and have been waiting for its entry into force.”