by Tara Chandra
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) brought the issue of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) back into the arms control spotlight on March 30 with the release of a much-anticipated report that evaluated the technical ability of the United States to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing. A summary of the report on the CTBT and a link to the full 215-page text can be found here. This 2012 report is an update to the 2002 study that was conducted on the same subject.
The CTBT was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 1996. The United States was the first country to sign the treaty in 1996, but it was rejected by the Senate in 1999. Although many of the mechanisms necessary to implement and enforce the Treaty are already in place, it cannot enter into force until 44 states deemed to be “nuclear capable” sign and ratify it. Among those that have yet to ratify the treaty are the United States, Iran, China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and Egypt.
Opponents of the Treaty argue that the United States can’t ensure the safety, security, and reliability of its nuclear arsenal without testing. They also argue that the treaty is unverifiable.
The NAS report refutes both claims. It concludes “that 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.”
Regarding the maintenance of the arsenal, the report states: “Provided that sufficient resources and a national commitment to stockpile stewardship are in place, the committee judges 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.”
The U.S. has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1992. Both Republican and Democratic Presidents have maintained this unilateral moratorium and this has not lessened the crediblity of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
The NAS report also refutes the claim that it is not possible to verify compliance with the Treaty: “The United States has technical capabilities to monitor nuclear explosions in four environments – underground, underwater, in the atmosphere, and in space.” The panel goes on to say that “the status of U.S national monitoring and the International Monitoring System has improved to levels better than predicted in 1999.”
Lastly, those who continue to oppose CTBT ratification argue that the other critical states that have not yet ratified the CTBT will continue to test, while the United States will be bound by the treaty’s constraints. To date, 157 countries have ratified the Treaty, with the notable exceptions of the United States, China, North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan. However, the leaders of many of these non-ratifying nations have stated either publicly or privately that they would strongly consider ratification if the United States were to ratify the Treaty.
The United States has the best developed and most frequently tested nuclear arsenal of any other country, so by locking in a worldwide moratorium on testing, we would ensure ourselves an enormous edge. Furthermore, through ratification, we will strengthen our ability to deter and detect cheating and prevent other nuclear armed states from improving their arsenals through testing.
Moreover, as the unofficial “enforcer” of the global non-proliferation regime, the United States needs to lead by example. Ratifying the CTBT will strengthen U.S. leadership on non-proliferation, thereby putting us in a stronger bargaining position when seeking international support for dealing with rogue states.