By Hazel O’Leary
The article below was originally published by the Union Tribune on Thursday, April 19, 2012.
More than 50 world leaders met recently in South Korea to address the challenges posed by the buildup and spread of nuclear weapons. As President Barack Obama noted, success depends on a multilayered strategy, including implementation of a global, verifiable treaty banning nuclear weapons testing.
By banning the bang, a treaty would constrain the ability of other states to develop new and more deadly nuclear warheads and establish a global monitoring system to detect and deter possible testing.
The United States halted test explosions in 1992 and led the way for the negotiation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. The United States was able to confidently sign the treaty in 1996 because it has the most sophisticated and thoroughly tested nuclear arsenal – 1,030 nuclear tests. That’s more than all other nations combined.
Unfortunately, the Senate did not approve the treaty when it briefly considered it in 1999. Many senators who voted “no” expressed concerns about the ability of the United States to maintain its arsenal in the absence of testing and to verify compliance with the treaty.
That was then and this is now. A new and authoritative study by a panel of senior technical and military experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences documents significant advances that resolve earlier concerns about the treaty.
The panel concludes that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program – launched under my watch in the mid-1990s – “has been more successful than was anticipated.” The study finds that if sufficient resources are dedicated to the task, our weapons labs have the ability to maintain a reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons “into the foreseeable future.”
Today, weapons labs have more resources and better scientific tools than ever. Since 2009, funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration stockpile stewardship program has increased by 13 percent. The Obama administration’s $7.6 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013 would boost funding by 5 percent – even as other federal programs are being cut.
We must be vigilant in maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile, but doing so does not depend on resuming nuclear test explosions.
No country contemplating secret testing can be confident that it would not be detected. According to the panel of experts, “the status of U.S. national monitoring and the International Monitoring System has improved to levels better than predicted in 1999” for all technologies to detect nuclear test explosions – seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound, radionuclide and satellite monitoring.
The international system of 337 monitoring stations, which did not exist in 1999, is more than 80 percent complete and will only improve over time. This international system augments U.S. capabilities and provides a baseline for confronting possible violations.
The report concludes that “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.”
In other words, the global test ban would make it harder for China, India and Pakistan to perfect the more compact warhead designs that would allow them to field missiles armed with multiple warheads. Without nuclear test explosions, Iran could not perfect sophisticated two-stage thermonuclear warheads that can be delivered on long-range ballistic missiles.
But the full benefits of the test ban can only be achieved with U.S. ratification, which would prompt the remaining holdout states to follow suit.
Obama has expressed his commitment to secure Senate approval for the test ban treaty, but he and his team must provide stronger leadership to ensure that the Senate’s questions are addressed and to build bipartisan support for a successful vote.
Senators must also weigh the merits of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in light of the new scientific findings and not rush to judgment on the basis of old information.
The test-ban treaty is key to a successful U.S. strategy to reduce nuclear dangers. The longer we delay its entry into force, the tougher the nuclear weapons challenge becomes. It’s time for the Senate to take another look.
O’Leary is the president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. She served as U.S. secretary of energy from 1993 to 1997 and is a member of the board of directors of the independent Arms Control Association.