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Business Executive for National Security
June 2, 2022
Test Ban Treaty: Myths vs. Realities

Volume 3, Issue 6, March 30, 2012

The March 30 release of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty--Technical Issues for the United States lays out the most compelling case to date, based on the latest classified and intelligence information, that the United States does not need nuclear tests to maintain its arsenal and that the Test Ban Treaty can be verified.

The NAS report concludes that, without nuclear tests, "the United States is now better able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear stockpile and to monitor clandestine nuclear-explosion testing than at any time in the past."

Nevertheless, critics of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) will no doubt continue to repeat misinformation about the treaty. It is well-past time to put these myths to rest.

The Reality: Case For the Test Ban is Stronger Than Ever

The United States was the first nation to sign the CTBT when it was completed in 1996 and the treaty now has 182 members, including all U.S. allies in NATO. Russia and China stopped nuclear explosive testing as a direct result of the CTBT and only one nation (North Korea) has conducted nuclear tests since 1998. The CTBT has halted the regular practice of nuclear explosive testing, reducing the nuclear danger to the United States and its allies.

The United States was able to confidently sign the CTBT because it already has the most sophisticated and well-tested nuclear arsenal in the world. The United States conducted 1,030 nuclear detonations from 1945 to 1992--more than all other nations combined (Russia conducted 715 nuclear tests; China, 45; North Korea, 2; Iran, 0).

Moreover, the United States remains the world's unquestioned conventional weapons superpower. Today, there is no technical or military rationale for the United States to resume nuclear testing, and Washington gains an important constraint on nuclear proliferation by preventing testing by others.

The Senate failed to approve the CTBT when it came up for a vote in 1999, mainly due to political considerations and lack of sufficient time to fully debate the issues. But some senators also had concerns about whether the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)'s stockpile stewardship program (SSP) would be able to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal without testing, and whether the international monitoring system (IMS) to detect clandestine nuclear tests would be as effective as predicted.

Twelve years later, we have now gained enough experience with the SSP and the IMS to know that the predictions were correct. According to the new NAS report, these programs have proven to be even more effective than expected.

Commenting on how the case for the CTBT has improved, George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, said in April 2009, "[Republicans] might have been right voting against [the CTBT] some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.... [There are] new pieces of information that are very important and that should be made available to the Senate."

Debunking the Myths

The Senate has a responsibility to reconsider the treaty in light of the new evidence and not rush to judgment on the basis of old information. In particular, senators must dispel the tired myths that CTBT opponents continue to repeat about the treaty.

1. The Test Ban and Non-Proliferation

Ignoring abundant evidence to the contrary, CTBT critics make the unsubstantiated claim that ratification of the CTBT would not strengthen efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. These views are at odds with a growing list of bipartisan leaders who agree that the CTBT provides an important constraint on the ability of other states to threaten American security.

As Dr. Sigfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in 2009, "the single most important reason to ratify the CTBT is to stop other countries from improving their arsenals."

Supporting this view, the NAS report states that Russia and China are "unlikely to be able to deploy new types of strategic nuclear weapons" without conducting "multi-kiloton tests to build confidence in their performance." Such large tests, according to NAS, "would likely be detectable (even with evasion measures) by appropriately resourced U.S. national technical means [NTM] and a completed IMS network."

For example, with additional nuclear testing China could perfect smaller warhead designs and thereby put multiple warheads on its relatively small arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles. China has not conducted a nuclear test since it signed the CTBT, and is reportedly waiting for the United States to ratify before it does so.

The NAS report also found that, "Other 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."

In other words, potential nuclear-armed states like Iran could use nuclear tests to develop more advanced nuclear warhead designs that could fit on ballistic missiles. Given Tehran's uranium enrichment and missile capabilities, it is important to establish additional barriers against a sophisticated Iranian nuclear weapons capability in the years ahead.

It does not make sense to forego the CTBT and leave the door open to the resumption of nuclear testing by Russia, China and others. As Gen. John Shalikashvili, 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."

Preventing nuclear testing not only denies proliferators an important tool to develop more threatening warheads, but the CTBT is vital to broader U.S. nonproliferation goals. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would probably not have been extended indefinitely in 1995 without the pledge from the United States and the other original nuclear powers to stop testing and conclude CTBT negotiations by the end of 1996.

Another myth is that the CTBT might actually promote proliferation by forcing U.S. allies to question the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The reality is that all U.S. NATO and other allies support the CTBT.

For example, on April 29, 2011, the foreign ministers of 10 key U.S. allies--Australia, Germany, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates--issued a statement calling on "all states which have not yet done so to sign and ratify the CTBT... We believe that an effective end to nuclear testing will enhance and not weaken our national as well as global security and would significantly bolster the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime."

2. The Utility of Nuclear Test Explosions

Some claim that nuclear tests are still needed, and thus the United States should not limit its options under the CTBT. The reality is that the United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992, and does not need nuclear tests today or in the foreseeable future. The NAS report finds that "the United States has the technical capabilities to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear-explosion testing."

As NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino said in an April 2011 interview, the United States has "a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. There's no need to conduct underground [nuclear] testing."

And as D'Agostino's predecessor in the Bush administration, Linton Brooks, said in November 2011, "as a practical matter, it is almost certain that the United States will not test again... I have been in and out of government for a long time.  And in recent years I never met anybody who advocated that we seek authorization to return to testing."

The technical strategy for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile without explosive testing has been in place for almost two decades. Since 1994, each warhead type in the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been determined to be safe and reliable through a rigorous annual certification process. The stockpile stewardship program includes nuclear weapons surveillance and maintenance, non-nuclear and subcritical nuclear experiments, and increasingly sophisticated supercomputer modeling.  Life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads and can continue to do so indefinitely.

A 2009 study by JASON, the independent technical review panel, concluded that the "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence."

The 2012 NAS report found that "The technical capabilities for maintaining the U.S. stockpile absent nuclear-explosion testing are better now than anticipated" when the NAS issued its previous report in 2002.

Moreover, NNSA has more resources than ever before to perform core stockpile stewardship work. Since 2009, funding for the 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.

As Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted at a March 21, 2012 appropriations committee hearing, "Regarding nuclear weapons activities, I believe the fiscal year 2013 budget request provides more than sufficient funding to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile."

Another myth is that the United States might someday need to test to develop a new type of nuclear weapon. First, this need would only arise in response to a new weapon developed by another state that had conducted nuclear tests, which the CTBT itself would help prevent. Second, in the exceedingly unlikely event that nuclear testing is needed in the distant future, the United States has the option of exercising the CTBT's "supreme national interest clause" and withdraw.

However, given that the United States already has the most advanced nuclear arsenal in the world, setting off another round of global nuclear tests would only serve to undermine U.S. security by helping other nuclear-armed states improve their nuclear capabilities.

3. Test Ban Verification

One of the most enduring myths is that the CTBT is not verifiable. The reality is that national and international test ban monitoring capabilities have improved immensely over the last decade. With the combined capabilities of the international monitoring system (IMS), U.S. national technical means (NTM), and civilian seismic networks, no potential CTBT violator could be confident that a nuclear explosion of any military utility would escape detection.

The 2012 NAS report finds that national and global technical capabilities to monitor nuclear tests "have improved significantly over the past decade." Most (80%) of the stations planned as part of the IMS are now complete, and the United States' own global NTM capabilities are "superior to that of the IMS and can focus on monitoring countries of concern to the United States."

U.S. NTM includes seismic and radiation detection stations, spy satellites, human intelligence, and other tools, and data from these sources can be employed to verify treaty compliance.

NAS finds that these monitoring capabilities will "reduce the likelihood of successful clandestine nuclear-explosion testing, and inhibit the development of new types of strategic nuclear weapons."

North Korea has provided two recent real-world tests of U.S. and global monitoring capabilities. In October 2006, the international monitoring system easily detected North Korea's relatively low-yield (0.6 kiloton) nuclear explosion at 22 seismic stations and had a solid estimate of its location within five hours of the event. Radioactive gases from this test were detected by South Korea, the United States and 4,600 miles away in Yellowknife, Canada, at one of the international monitoring network's noble gas monitoring stations.

The second test by North Korea on May 25, 2009, with a yield of a few kilotons, was detected by a total of 61 international seismic stations. Some have suggested that because the international monitoring network did not detect radionuclide particles from the second North Korean test explosion, the system failed.

But, in fact, the seismic evidence alone would have provided a firm basis for on-site inspections (OSIs). The CTBT sets a limit of 1,000 square km for the inspected area, and the seismic data located the test well within this limit. According to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna, "The data would have provided a clear lead to the inspection team regarding where to look."

The NAS study noted that on-site inspections as allowed 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..." The panel noted that an on-site inspection "constitutes a deterrent to treaty violation whether or not an inspection actually takes place."

Another myth suggests that because the CTBT requires 30 of 51 nations on the CTBTO's Executive Council to agree to an OSI, states unfriendly to the U.S. could block them. In reality, the CTBT's on-site inspection provisions were established to balance the need for rapid response to a suspected test against the possibility of "frivolous or abusive" inspections. The approval of 30 out of 51 members of the Executive Council was designed to give nations like the United States and Israel confidence that inspections would be approved as needed, but not by a small minority with questionable motives.

4. Test Ban Treaty "Scope"

A common myth is that states have different interpretations of what the CTBT prohibits and that therefore some states believe that very low-yield tests are permitted.

The reality is that the negotiating record is clear: Article I of the CTBT bans "any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion" and all signatories of the treaty understand that means "zero" nuclear test explosions.

The CTBT is a "zero-yield" treaty, meaning that it prohibits all nuclear explosions that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction. According to the State Department, the parties made a deliberate decision not to include a specific definition of scope in the treaty so as to avoid loopholes that could arise from a technical list of what specific activities were and were not permitted. A review of the negotiating history and statements by world leaders shows that all states understand and accept the CTBT as a "zero-yield" treaty.

The CTBT follows the precedent of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) that used this same approach. The LTBT has been in force for nearly fifty years, and the language has never been at issue.

Under the CTBT, supercritical "hydronuclear" tests (which produce a self-sustaining fission chain reaction) are banned, but subcritical "hydrodynamic" experiments, which do not produce a self-sustaining fission chain reaction, are permitted. According to the State Department, these decisions were made to ensure that the CTBT banned all nuclear testing, but permitted the United States to maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

In 1999, the United States' CTBT negotiator, Amb. Stephen Ledogar, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the subject: "I have heard some critics of the treaty seek to cast doubt on whether Russia, in the negotiation and signing of the treaty, committed itself under treaty law to a truly comprehensive prohibition of any nuclear explosion, including an explosion/experiment/event of even the slightest nuclear yield. In other words, did Russia agree that hydronuclear experiments would be banned, and that hydrodynamic explosions (which have no yield because they do not reach criticality) would not be banned?"

Ledogar continued, "The answer is a categoric 'yes.' The Russians, as well as the other weapon states, did commit themselves. That answer is substantiated by the record of the negotiations at almost any level of technicality (and national security classification) that is desired and permitted. More importantly for the current debate, it is also substantiated by the public record of statements by high level Russian officials...."

As the Russian government explained to the Duma when it ratified the CTBT in 2000: "Qualitative modernization of nuclear weapons is only possible through full-scale and hydronuclear tests with the emission of fissile energy, the carrying out of which directly contradicts the CTBT." It is clear to all parties that the CTBT establishes a "zero-yield" prohibition on nuclear test explosions.

Dangerous Mythology

Taken together, these outdated CTBT myths amount to a "do-nothing" approach that would deny the United States the clear benefits of CTBT ratification. Without positive action on the CTBT, the risks of a resumption of nuclear testing by others will only grow. U.S. ratification, however, would reinforce the taboo against testing and prompt other hold-out states--such as China, India, and Pakistan--to ratify the treaty.

Nuclear testing is a dangerous and unnecessary vestige of the Cold War that the United States rightly rejected two decades ago. The United States does not need nuclear weapons test explosions, but those who seek to improve their arsenals do.

U.S. action on the CTBT would build support for updating and strengthening the global nonproliferation system at a critical juncture. The Senate's reconsideration of the CTBT should be based on an honest and up-to-date analysis of the facts and the issues at stake. --TOM Z. COLLINA and DARYL G. KIMBALL

For more information on the CTBT, see:


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.