Marking the International Day Against Nuclear Tests

Today is the official International Day Against Nuclear Tests, established in 2009 on the anniversary of the closure of the main former Soviet test site of Semipalatinsk, where more than 456 nuclear explosions contaminated the land and its inhabitants.

Largely as a result of the courageous efforts of the Kazakh people to close down the Semipalatinsk site, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev declared a nuclear test moratorium on October 5, 1991. This, in turn, prompted a bipartisan coalition of U.S. legislators, including Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon), George Mitchell (D-Maine), Rep. Mike Kopetski (D-Oregon) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri) to introduce legislation for a 1-year nuclear test moratorium legislation.

With strong popular support in the United States, the legislation gathered momentum and was later modified to mandate a 9-month U.S. testing halt and negotiations on a CTBT. The legislation was approved by strong majorities in the House and Senate in September 1992. The last U.S. nuclear test explosion was conducted at the Nevada Test Site on September 23, 1992.

The following year, after an intensive policy review, President Clinton extended the U.S. test moratorium and launched multilateral negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). With the help of international protests over French and Chinese nuclear testing in 1995 and 1996, governments agreed to adopt a “zero-yield” test ban, and the CTBT was opened for signature on September 24, 1996.

By banning all nuclear weapon test explosions, the CTBT prevents the established nuclear-weapon states from proof-testing new, more sophisticated warhead designs. Without the option of nuclear explosive testing, newer members of the club cannot perfect smaller, more easily deliverable warheads.

With the CTBT in force, global and national capabilities to detect and deter possible clandestine nuclear testing by other states will be significantly greater. Entry-into-force is essential to making short-notice, on-site inspections possible and maintaining long-term political and financial support from other nations for the operation of the International Monitoring System and International Data Center.

Accelerating CTBT Entry Into Force

The CTBT has reinforced the global nuclear test moratorium. Since 1998, only one country (North Korea) has engaged in explosive nuclear testing.

Unfortunately, the job of addressing the damage caused by nuclear testing and achieving a permanent and verifiable ban on all nuclear testing is incomplete. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said this month, “while existing voluntary moratoriums on nuclear weapon tests are essential, they are no substitute for a total global ban.”

One-hundred eighty-three states have signed the CTBT, but the treaty must still be ratified by eight remaining hold out states—the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and North Korea—before it can formally enter into force.

Ratification by the United States and China is particularly important. Given their existing nuclear test moratoria and 1996 signature of the CTBT, Washington and Beijing already bear most CTBT-related responsibilities, yet their failure to ratify has denied them—and others—the full security benefits of CTBT entry into force.

In April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to “immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.” He said, “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.”

The technical and political case for the CTBT is even stronger than it was in 1999 when the Senate failed to provide its advice and consent for ratification. To do so, the President must exert the necessary political will and resources to pursue ratification and all Senators must be prepared to review the new evidence in support of the treaty rather than arrive at judgments based on old information or misinformation.

It is also time for China’s leaders to finally act on the CTBT. For years, Chinese government representatives have reported that the CTBT is before the National People’s Congress for consideration but has apparently taken no action. The January 19, 2011 Joint Statement by President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama stating that “… both sides support early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

Washington’s renewed pursuit of CTBT ratification opens up opportunities for China and other hold-out states to lead the way toward entry into force by ratifying before the United States does. Action by Beijing would increase its credibility as a nonproliferation leader and improve the chances that other states in Asia, as well as the United States, would follow suit.

India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan could advance the cause of nuclear disarmament and substantially ease regional tensions by converting their unilateral test moratoria into a legally binding commitment to end nuclear testing through the CTBT.

Unfortunately, since their tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998 that were condemned by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1172, neither India nor Pakistan have transformed their de facto nuclear test moratorium into a legally binding commitment not to conduct nuclear test explosions.

It is also past time for India’s current leaders to pursue the recommendations of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s eloquent and visionary 1988 action plan for disarmament, which calls for “a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons … to set the stage for negotiations on a comprehensive test-ban treaty.”

India’s security and that of Asia would be enhanced if New Delhi were to seek adoption of the CTBT along with its nuclear-armed Asian neighbors. Pakistan, which can ill-afford the expensive and senseless continuation of its fissile and missile race with India, should welcome a legally binding test ban with India.

The Middle East

With no shortage of conflict and hostility in the Middle East, ratification by Israel, Egypt and Iran would reduce nuclear-weapons-related security concerns in the region. It would also help create the conditions necessary for the realization of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Likewise, if Israel were to ratify the CTBT, it would bring that nation closer to the nuclear nonproliferation mainstream and help encourage other states in the region to follow suit.

Iranian ratification would help reduce concerns that its nuclear program could be used to develop and deploy deliverable nuclear warheads. Continued failure by Iran to ratify the CTBT raises further questions about the nature of its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities.

North Korea

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and rumors of further detonations undermine Asian security. The DPRK leadership should abide by their Feb. 29, 2012 pledge to refrain from further nuclear testing pending the resumption of the Six-Party talks and agree to join the CTBT as one of the key steps in the action-for-action process for denuclearization and normalization.

Addressing the Damage Caused by Nuclear Testing

The damage caused by the 2,052 nuclear test explosions conducted worldwide lingers on at dozens of test sites from Lop Nor in China, to the atolls of the Pacific, to Nevada, to Algeria where France conducted its first test, to western Australia where the U.K. exploded nuclear weapons, to Semipalatinsk, across Russia, in Kazakhstan, and beyond.

Our knowledge of the extent of the harm caused by five decades of nuclear test explosions underground, in the atmosphere, and underwater is still incomplete. The governments responsible for the damage have not adequately provided the assistance to survivors and resources necessary to mitigate the environmental contamination. In fact, the major testing states have been reluctant to recognize the harm inflicted by testing and the rights of those people who have been most affected.

In 2009, the government of Kazakhstan made an important proposal: the establishment of an international fund—to be managed by the United Nations—to support the survivors of nuclear testing. To translate the idea into action, the UN Secretary-General to organize a conference under the auspices of the United Nations to help mobilize resources for the remediation of contamination and health monitoring and rehabilitation of downwinders near nuclear test sites around the world.

The U.S. government needs to do its part. A new report by a UN special rapporteur finds that as a result of the 67 atmospheric nuclear tests on the Pacific islands of Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik from 1946-1958, the people of these communities have suffered dislocation from their indigenous way of life and adverse health damage. The current U.S. plan for ongoing monetary compensation for the residents of the islands (which is due to expire in a decade) does not constitute an effective long-term or sustainable plan, yet the U.S. government seems to have no plan for the future, the rapporteur found.

Beginning in 1951, the United States also conducted 100 atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada. A 1997 U.S. National Cancer Institute report estimated that the 90 dirtiest U.S. nuclear tests could cause 7,500-75,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer across the country.

In 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Since then, about 16,000 people from rural counties in Nevada, Utah, and northwestern Arizona have made proven claims for compensation. All told, the federal government has paid out almost $800 million over the last two decades. However, the government has denied about 4,000 people in the region compensation even though a 2005 Congressional report by the Committee on Government Reform found that “radiation associated with cancer is actually more common in counties where residents are excluded from compensation than in those counties where residents are included under RECA law.” Residents of the region have been pressing for ratification of the CTBT and the expansion of RECA.

The August 29 commemoration is a reminder of the need to accelerate action toward entry into force of the CTBT and improve programs to better understand and responsibly address the health and environmental damage caused by past nuclear testing. The following numbers speak for themselves.