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Column: If we want to see the end of nuclear weapons then we need to ban nuclear testing

The treaty banning nuclear testing is yet to ratified by the US and other countries, but it is key to the steps to the path of nuclear disarmament, writes Jason Douglas.

Jason Douglas

IN HIS MUCH-FETED speech in Prague in April 2009, President Obama declared that America, under his leadership, would take concrete steps to bring about “a world free from nuclear weapons” as well as a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons in US security thinking more generally. In his speech, Obama argued that after 50 years of discussions, the time had come to prohibit nuclear testing, something he and his administration would work on ‘aggressively’ to see realised.

Stemming the further spread of nuclear weapons

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has yet to be ratified by the US Senate. While the decision is not Obama’s to make, his task to convince critics and to allay their fears is key to its ratification. Slow and steady progress is being made, but obstacles remain—not least of which are the outmoded mentalities of the past which have hindered the treaty’s passage thus far.

The testing of nuclear weapons is something that has gone on since the dawn of the nuclear age, for obvious reasons. In order to ensure that a nuclear weapon design was effective it was tested. Quite a few of these tests were conducted by the nuclear powers during the Cold War. While many of these were conducted underground, many were not. Many tests were conducted, for example, in the atmosphere or under water until the conclusion of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. The environmental and ecological damage inflicted by these tests is incalculable.

Since 1992, under President George H.W. Bush there has been a de facto prohibition on US nuclear testing and every subsequent president has opted to renew this moratorium. While America’s nuclear arsenal is ageing, it also has the scientific expertise and, crucially, the money, to ensure that further detonation testing is unnecessary. What’s required now is the political will to make this de facto ban a legally binding prohibition.

The CTBT opened for signature in September 1996 and was initially signed by 71 states, a group which included five nuclear-armed states. The treaty itself is a relatively simple instrument. It aims to outlaw all nuclear testing anywhere, thus making the acquisition of nuclear weapons more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. If a state cannot test its nuclear capability, it cannot be sure if it works. If it cannot be sure that it works, the weapon cannot effectively deter aggression, nor can the state in question further enhance and develop its nuclear stockpile which can be done only through detonation tests. The treaty, while creating divisions in the US Congress, is generally seen as key to stemming the further spread of nuclear weapons and it enjoys considerable global support.

Problems with the treaty

The waters are muddied somewhat by the current status of the treaty. Some members have signed and ratified, others have only signed and not ratified, while others have had no dealings with the treaty whatsoever. The latter two groups are what are known as ‘Annex 2’ states. The treaty will not enter into force until 180 days after its ratification by these ‘Annex 2’ states, so all eyes are on the US in the hope that by ratifying it there, it might produce a chain reaction across the nuclear-armed world.

Since the Clinton administration, lawmakers in the US have debated the treaty and what it might mean for US national security. Democrats have proven themselves to be more amenable to the treaty, seeing it as a crucial step on the long road to nuclear disarmament. Republicans, for their part, view the treaty as a ligature that would bind the US and strictly curtail its freedom of movement. If the US is to protect itself using its nuclear arsenal, they argue, then it must be sure that the arsenal is credible and in good working order.

Democrats, as well as a prominent director of a US national nuclear laboratory—Siegfried Hecker–have supported the treaty, arguing that the current life-extension programmes designed to prolong the life of the existing arsenal are sufficient to ensure a credible deterrent. The Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) is designed to prolong the life of existing warheads and (hopefully) ensure confidence in them, obviating the need to develop and test new ones.

Nuclear disarmament

One of the key tests of President Obama’s commitment to nuclear disarmament is how he handles ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The problem is, the decision is out of his hands. The Senate is the final arbiter of whether ratification takes place or not and it is in this domain that its fate will be decided. Congress can sometimes be skirted on issues of national security, in informal arms control agreements, for example—but not in the case of international treaties.

In other words, the only way around the Senate is by going through it, which at this point appears to be an impossible task. A two-thirds majority vote (67 votes) would ensure its passage. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher has stated that the Obama administration would not submit the treaty for the advice and consent of the Senate until it was confident it could succeed. Presently, however, its chances don’t look good.

Obama’s approach—calling for the Senate to ratify while at the same time addressing the concerns of critics—is, essentially, correct and appears to be working, albeit very slowly. Change doesn’t usually happen quickly within the Beltway, especially not in relation to something as important as CTBT ratification and the outdated mentalities that have thus far prevented it.

Closing the door on nuclear testing

Obama is right to be cautious. The treaty was, after all, defeated in 1999. Another defeat could see it banished to political limbo for another decade, putting a huge dent in Obama’s programme for change and, more importantly, the prospect of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives for the foreseeable future. But the course he has adopted is yielding results. Former critics of the treaty—like the once-hawkish George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state—have now voiced their support. What’s needed now is a concerted effort to build on this traction and ‘close the door’ on nuclear testing for good.

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Presently, conditions in the US for CTBT ratification are unfavourable. Long-term, however, it appears to have every chance of success. While plans continue to be made for the extension of the existing US nuclear stockpile, the US has also issued a number of conditions for treaty ratification—such as a clause which would allow the US to withdraw should it be deemed to be in the ‘supreme national interest’ of the US, as well as maintaining a basic test capability in case of withdrawal—meaning that the conditions under which they might enter will not be injurious to their national security.

Critics fail to see that it is in America’s interests to see the treaty enforced. As well as this, it is simply the right thing to do. A world where nuclear testing is outlawed will be a safer world. North Korea’s recent tests demonstrated how troubling nuclear testing can be. When the CTBT enters into force, it will benefit all nations—including the United States.

Here is a time lapse of every nuclear explosion siNCE 1945:

Via YouTube/Don’t Blink

Jason Douglas is a PhD student in UCC. He has written on various nuclear weapons issues such as  deterrence, non-proliferation and missile defences. Samples of his work can be found at Academia.edu. To read more articles by Jason click here.

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