The debate over the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is heating up following the release of a National Academy of Sciences report, which says the United States is able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear weapons stockpile without testing.
The report, released March 30, provides support for the Obama administration’s position that the U.S. Senate should reconsider ratifying the treaty, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and then defeated in the Senate in 1999.
The treaty would ban all nuclear explosions for military and civilian purposes, including the testing of nuclear weapons. The United States last conducted a nuclear weapons test in 1992.
The new report concludes the United States is much better positioned to monitor clandestine nuclear testing abroad than it was in 1999. This makes it easier to detect countries that might cheat on the treaty’s commitments.
The report says there have been significant advances, particularly in seismology, which is the most effective approach for monitoring underground nuclear explosion testing. It does not take a position on whether the U.S. should ratify the treaty.
“Our charter was entirely technical,” Linton Brooks, who served on the study committee, said. He is a former ambassador and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration at the Department of Energy, appointed by former President George W. Bush.
“We hope if there is a debate that it will be informed by the best technical data available,” Brooks said in an April 10 call with reporters.
The White House asked for the report, calling on the National Research Council to review and update a 2002 study that examined the technical concerns surrounding the CTBT.
Those who oppose ratifying the CTBT admit the new report is a big improvement over the 2002 study.
Ambassador C. Paul Robinson, former director of the Sandia National Laboratories, said the report is far more thorough and balanced in its conclusions than the earlier study. However, it does not dispel his concerns that ratification would tie the hands of the United States while allowing other countries to evade international monitoring.
The report notes that countries could still develop nuclear weapons without testing and therefore without being detected, but it concludes that such a threat would not require the United States to return to weapons testing in order to respond.
“We could not identify a scenario that would likely lead to a national security requirement for the United States to resume testing,” Brooks said.
Even if the Senate ratifies the treaty, it is unlikely to enter into force because other countries that must sign for the treaty to take effect are unlikely to do so, Robinson said, speaking April 10 at the Heritage Foundation.
The treaty would enter into force after ratification by the 44 countries that either already possessed nuclear weapons or had nuclear reactors in 1996. To date, 36 have done so, including Russia, the United Kingdom and France.
Of the remaining eight countries, the United States, along with China, Iran, Israel and Egypt, have signed the treaty, but have yet to ratify it. India, North Korea and Pakistan have not signed it.
Indonesia ratified the treaty Feb. 12, the latest country to do so.
John Foster, former director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, said he is concerned that by ratifying the treaty the United States would risk further delaying the modernization of its nuclear weapons.
By not testing, “we may be running serious risks and not know it,” Foster said, also speaking at the Heritage Foundation.
While nuclear disarmament to date has marked a “remarkable accomplishment,” it is important the United States maintain a nuclear deterrent that is tailored to today’s threats, Foster said.
Maintaining a safe and effective nuclear weapons stockpile is mostly an issue of resources, Brooks said. This means continued funding to recruit and maintain a high quality workforce, repairing aging infrastructure, and investing in needed technologies, especially satellites for international monitoring.
There was little dissent when it came to the report’s conclusions, Brooks said. Instead, “we spent more time arguing about the right way to express our conclusions to maintain nuance than anything else.”