NAS Report Builds Technical Case for CTBT Approval

Today, the U.S. National Academies of Science released its long-awaited update on technical issues related to the CTBT in Washington.

The independent panel of senior scientific and military experts was charged with reviewing technical changes related to the U.S. nuclear stockpile and to nuclear explosion test monitoring that have occurred in the ten years since the NAS’ 2002 report on the subject.

The study was requested by the Barack Obama administration in 2009 following the President’s call for “immediately” pursuing reconsideration and ratification of the treaty. Although the report was completed in early 2011, its release was delayed by an extensive declassification review lasting some 11 months.

The NAS panel concluded that the NNSA nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program “has been more successful than was anticipated in 1999,” when the Senate last considered and voted on the CTBT. “Similarly,” the panel said, “the status of U.S. national monitoring and the International Monitoring System has improved to levels better than predicted in 1999.”

The new NAS study found that “provided that sufficient resources and a national commitment to stockpile stewardship are in place … the United States has the technical ability to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear explosion testing.”

Since 2009, funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) nuclear weapons complex has increased by 13%. The Obama administration's $7.6 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013 would boost NNSA weapons programs funding even more--by 5% over last year's appropriation of $7.2 billion.

The panel’s detailed report also concludes that “[c]onstraints placed on nuclear-explosion testing by the monitoring capabilities of the IMS [International Monitoring System] and … U.S. NTM [national technical means of intelligence], will reduce the likelihood of successful clandestine nuclear-explosion testing, and inhibit the development of new types of strategic nuclear weapons.”

The report found that “[o]ther states intent on acquiring and deploying modern, two-stage thermonuclear weapons would not be able to have confidence in their performance without multi-kiloton testing. Such tests would likely be detectable (even with evasion measures) by appropriately resourced U.S. national technical means and a completed IMS network.”

The study noted that an on-site inspection as allowed for under the treaty once it enters into force, “would have a high likelihood of detecting evidence of a nuclear explosion with a yield greater than 0.1 kilotons, provided that the event could be located with sufficient precision … and conducted without hindrance.” The panel noted that on-site inspection “constitutes a deterrent to treaty violation whether or not an inspection actually takes place ….”

The report found that “the development of weapons with lower capabilities … is possible with or without the CTBT for countries of different levels of nuclear sophistication,” but such developments would not require the United States to return to nuclear testing in order to respond because it already has—or could produce—weapons of equal or greater capability based on its own nuclear-explosion test history.”

The United States has detonated 1,030 nuclear test explosions, the last of which was in September 1992.

Former NNSA administrator and NAS panel member Linton Brooks stated in public remarks in November 2011, “as a practical matter, it is almost certain that the United States will not test again. The political bar against testing is extremely high.”

“I have been in and out of government for a long time,” Brooks said, “and in recent years I never met anybody who advocated that we seek authorization to return to testing.”

The Case for the Test Ban is Stronger Than Ever

The new NAS report confirms what the public has known for sometime and now, what the vast majority of military and scientific leaders and even former nuclear testing proponents now understand: that the United States no longer needs and would not benefit from nuclear explosive testing. Renewed nuclear testing would only help improve other nations’ nuclear capabilities and reduce U.S. security.

The United States has already assumed most CTBT-related responsibilities; however, it cannot reap the full security benefits associated with the CTBT until the Senate approves the Treaty by a two-thirds majority.

Politics of Treaty Ratification

With the NAS report now completed and released, it is the responsibility of Senators and their staff to review the facts and the findings in the NAS study and for the administration to engage with interested Senate offices.

A thoughtful, thorough review of the issues is essential. The Senate has not seriously examined these issues in years. In the decade since the Senate last considered the CTBT, 59 Senators have left office; only 41 Senators who debated and voted on the CTBT in 1999 remain.

Senators have a responsibility to take a serious look at the merits of the Treaty in light of the new NAS findings and not rush to a judgment on the basis of old information or partisan politics.

However, given that the presidential election is less than a year away and given that a successful treaty approval process requires months of hearings, answers to thousands of questions, it is clear that the next opportunity for the Senate to look at the CTBT will be in 2013 or after.

In the meantime, President Obama, who has repeatedly expressed his commitment to the CTBT, must provide stronger leadership to ensure the Senate's questions on the CTBT are fully addressed and to create the necessary climate and necessary support for a successful vote.

The American people expect their leaders to take action to reduce the nuclear weapons threat. The Test Ban Treaty effectively propels our nation’s nuclear nonproliferation strategy into the 21st century. Rejecting or delaying ratification of the CTBT does not advance U.S. interests and only undermines our ability to detect, deter, and confront proliferators.