Secretaries Kerry & Moniz: Time to Reconsider the Test Ban Treaty

After their success in achieving an Iran nuclear agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz have announced a new joint project: educating the Senate about the nuclear test ban treaty. Similar to their last joint endeavor, the Secretaries will face considerable opposition as they lay the groundwork for a renewed push towards ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The CTBT, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1996, prohibits nuclear testing and relies on a global network of sensors to detect potential detonations. While the United States signed the treaty in 1996, it is one of eight remaining states that must ratify the agreement before it can enter into force, along with Egypt, India, Iran, China, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. The Senate originally rejected the treaty in 1999 by a vote of 51-48 (16 votes short of ratification) over concerns that the United States would not be able to effectively maintain its nuclear arsenal and that detection technology was not accurate enough to effectively monitor a ban on nuclear detonations.

The renewed effort was introduced at a Department of Energy event commemorating 20 years of the Stockpile Stewardship program, which uses computer simulations and advance technology to ensure that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is effective and reliable.  The venue was fitting, as the Stockpile Stewardship program has allowed the United States to end its reliance on nuclear testing while still maintaining the effectiveness of the arsenal. As a result, the United States has been in de facto compliance with the treaty, having not conducted a nuclear test since 1992.

Same Treaty, New World

Secretary Kerry emphasized that the context for debating the treaty has substantially changed:

“The factors that led some senators to oppose the treaty in 1999 have changed, and, so, choices should change as well.”

When CTBT was first debated, the Stockpile Stewardship program was still being developed and the idea of an international monitoring system for nuclear detonations was a daunting technological challenge. Now, the United States has maintained its nuclear arsenal without testing and the CTBT’s global sensory system has been installed to critical mass, leading to successful detection of three underground tests conducted by North Korea. The system, which relies on four complimentary technologies: seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound, and radionuclide to detect nuclear detonations, is so sensitive, that a station in Antarctica detected a meteor breaking up over Russia some 15,000 km away.

Solidifying a U.S. Advantage

Ratifying the treaty and bringing the CTBT into force would both preserve the US advantage in nuclear testing data and establish an additional barrier for countries attempting to develop a nuclear weapon. The United States has conducted over a thousand nuclear tests, resulting in decades of test data for use in computer simulations. Rogue nations attempting to develop a nuclear weapon will not have this luxury, and will instead need to conduct small scale tests to determine the effectiveness of their programs. Ratifying the CTBT prevents any state from conducting secret nuclear tests by ensuring that the institutions and technology necessary to detect low-yield nuclear tests are present and prioritized. This additional barrier to developing nuclear weapons strengthens the global non-proliferation regime, while leaving the United States with a distinct advantage in nuclear testing data and expertise.

Looming Challenges

While positive advancements in technology have made the CTBT more feasible, developments in politics, specifically a firm opposition to treaties and hyperpolarization of national security issues, are likely to delay U.S. ratification. Ratifying the treaty will require support from 67 senators, which would require some level of bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the current environment in the Senate, especially in the build up to a presidential election, is not conducive to bipartisanship.

Secretary Kerry described the biggest challenge in the Senate as one of education, fearing that as many as 85 sitting senators have no familiarity with the intricacies of arms control. With this issue in mind, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz plan to conduct an extensive education campaign in the Senate, demonstrating the positives of ratification and the changes in technology that make ratification all the more sensible.

President Clinton referred to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as the “longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in arms control history.” The dynamic duo of Kerry and Moniz seem poised to chase that prize for the remainder of their terms in office.