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June 2, 2022
Accelerating the Entry Into Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
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Arms Control NOW

By Daryl G. Kimball

Today, fifteen years after the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was opened for signature, more than 100 senior government officials will gather at the United Nations in New York for the seventh conference on "Facilitating Entry Into Force of the CTBT."

To date, the United States and 181 other nations have signed the Treaty; 155 nations have ratified.

While the CTBT has near universal support, the Treaty must still be ratified by nine hold-out states, including the United States and China, before it can formally enter into force.

CTBT states will gather at the UN for the seventh conference on facilitating entry into force on Sept. 23

As the statement from nongovernmental organizations delivered at the conference urges, it is time for key states to translate words into action by:

  • pressing key hold out states to reconsider, sign, and ratify the Treaty;
  • solidifying support for the international monitoring system, and
  • working to overcome the final barriers to entry into force.

The Value of the CTBT

The CTBT won't by itself stop proliferation, but the United States and others cannot effectively stop proliferation and reducing the nuclear threat without the CTBT.

By banning all nuclear test explosions, the CTBT prevents the established nuclear-weapon states from proof-testing new, more sophisticated warhead designs. And without nuclear test explosions, could-be nuclear-armed states such as Iran would have a far more difficult time developing and fielding smaller, more easily deliverable warheads.

Iran, which has signed the CTBT, said on Sept. 2 at the United Nations that it "considers this treaty as a step towards disarmament." In my address on behalf of NGOs to an informal session of the General Assembly to mark the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, I responded by noting that Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obliges all states—the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states—to contribute to disarmament and Iran must do its part.

I noted that if Iran ratified the CTBT, it could help reduce concerns that its nuclear program would be used to develop smaller, deliverable nuclear warheads. If Iran refuses to ratify the CTBT, it would raise further questions about the nature of its nuclear activities and increase international support for targeted sanctions on its nuclear and missile programs.

With the CTBT in force, U.S. national and international capabilities to detect and deter possible clandestine nuclear testing by other states will clearly be significantly greater. Entry-into-force is essential to making short-notice, on-site inspections possible.

The United States and the CTBT

Ratification by the United States and China is particularly important. Given their existing nuclear test moratoria and treaty signatures, Washington and Beijing already bear most CTBT-related responsibilities, yet their failure to ratify has denied them—and others—the full security benefits of the treaty.

President Barack Obama pledged in April 2009 to "immediately and aggressively" pursue U.S. ratification of" the CTBT. He said, "After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned." Indeed.

Earlier this year, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher announced that the administration would begin a quiet effort to discuss the technical issues of the Treaty with some Senate offices. Some useful speeches have been delivered and the Department of State has published some useful background information.

However, far more must be done to mobilize the scientific and technical expertise necessary to debunk spurious assertions against the Treaty and lay the groundwork for a high-level campaign for its reconsideration by the U.S. Senate.

Such an effort takes time and will not yield clear results in the next several months or more. But to move forward, the Obama administration can and must begin to make the substantive case and present the technical evidence for the Treaty beginning now.

To indicate his intention to do so, President Obama should promptly name a senior, high-level White House coordinator for the CTBT effort.

When will the Senate reconsider the CTBT and what will the outcome be? It is hard to say at this point. The debate has not really even begun and the Senate has not reviewed this issue in more than a decade.

But what is clear is that the technical and political case for the CTBT is much stronger today than it was in 1999 when the Senate briefly considered the treaty. When there is a serious examination of the facts and the logic of the Treaty, there will be a positive shift in Senate opinion.

For instance, with today's improved U.S. and international test monitoring, no would-be cheater could confidently conduct an undetected nuclear explosion large enough to threaten U.S. security. Those CTBT skeptics who worry about highly unlikely cheating scenarios ignore the fact that by stiff-arming the CTBT, we make it easier on those states who might consider nuclear testing.

Most importantly, having conducted more than half (1,030) of the world's total nuclear test explosions (2,052), the United States simply doesn't need or want nuclear test explosions to maintain its arsenal or to develop new kinds of warheads.

The stockpile stewardship program has fully matured and the U.S. weapons labs have more than enough resources to maintain and refurbish the arsenal for decades to come.

Other states, however, could improve their nuclear capabilities through further explosive testing. It is time we recognize that reality and act upon it.

While some may want to keep open the option to resume nuclear explosions, no serious military or technical expert believes the United States should do so, and if that changes at some point in the distant future, the CTBT contains a supreme national interest withdrawal provision.

It is also clear that if this administration pursues the high-level, months-long campaign that it pursued to win Senate approval for New START, it can do the same for the CTBT.

Not only must the Obama administration put together a smart campaign, but each and every Senator has a solemn responsibility to honestly review the new evidence for the treaty—including the new National Intelligence Estimate and new National Academies of Science report on the subject—rather than rush to judgment on the basis of outdated information or factually-challenged claims from pro-testers.

China and Others

While U.S. action on the treaty is essential, other states must also provide leadership.

In particular, it is time for China's leaders to finally act on the CTBT. The January 19, 2011 Joint Statement by President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama says they declared that "... both sides support early entry into force of the CTBT." Such statements are welcome but insufficient.

Concrete action toward CTBT ratification by China would increase its credibility as a nonproliferation leader and improve the chances that other states, including India, will follow suit.

Reinforcing the Regime

Once the United States and China ratify, there will be a political chain reaction elsewhere. And when the Washington and Beijing move on the CTBT, member states should begin serious consideration of options for provisional entry into force to guard against the possibility that just one or two states try to thwart the will of the vast majority of the world's nations on the Treaty.

There are other actions that should be pursued that would reinforce the de facto test moratorium and accelerate CTBT entry into force:

  1. Responsible states should provide in full and without delay their assessed financial contributions to the CTBTO, fully assist with the completion of the IMS networks, and continuously and without interruption transmit data from the monitoring stations to provide the most robust capability to detect and deter clandestine nuclear test explosions.
  2. Every state should recognize that the Provisional Technical Secretariat to the CTBTO Preparatory Commission is–for all practical purposes–no longer "provisional." The CTBTO and the International Monitoring System and International Data Center are now an essential part of today's 21st century international security architecture that improves the ability of all states to detect and deter nuclear test surreptitious nuclear explosions, helps with tsunami early-warning, and augments global radiation disaster assessments. As Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center and David Koplow of Georgetown University argue here, even the symbolic step of removing the word "provisional" from the CTBTO name would be politically valuable.
  3. In order to further dissuade any state from considering nuclear test explosions in the future, the UN Security Council should outline the penalties that could be imposed in the event that any state breaks the testing taboo. These actions should include immediate referral to the Council, meaningful economic penalties, and, if applicable, the suspension of any nuclear cooperation with that state. North Korea's 2009 nuclear test must be the last.

As Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded in his 2001 report on the CTBT: "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."