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The goal of eliminating all nuclear testing in an effort to stop proliferation gained impressive support when the National Academy of Sciences released its long-awaited report on the technical issues behind the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The treaty was completed in 1996, having been initiated under President Dwight Eisenhower, and has been signed by 182 nations, including the U.S. and all of our NATO allies.
The Senate chose not to ratify the treaty in 1999 because of two main issues. Opponents were concerned about the reliability of our nuclear stockpiles without testing and treaty compliance verification to guarantee that no party was cheating.
The CTBT follows on the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that eliminated atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. It would prohibit nuclear weapons testing of any size in all environments. It would establish a network of global monitoring stations to help track compliance and provide for inspections of suspected tests. The treaty permits research, development and design activities by nuclear weapon states, but any experiment producing a nuclear yield is forbidden.
The United States has not conducted a nuclear weapons test since 1992, when President George H.W. Bush signed a testing moratorium. To that point the U.S. had conducted 1,030 nuclear detonations — more than all other nations combined. For all this time the U.S. has effectively paid the price of not testing, but without realizing the full security and political benefits.
In the current report, the National Academies’ independent panel of senior scientific and military experts was charged with reviewing technical changes related to U.S. nuclear stockpile reliability and to nuclear explosion test monitoring that have occurred in the 10 years since the NAS’ 2002 report on the subject.
President Barack Obama requested the study in 2009 calling for “immediately” pursuing reconsideration and ratification of the treaty.
The NAS panel concluded that the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program “has been more successful than was anticipated in 1999,” when the Senate last considered and voted on the CTBT. “Similarly,” the panel said, “the status of U.S. national monitoring and the International Monitoring System has improved to levels better than predicted in 1999.”
The new NAS study found that “provided that sufficient resources and a national commitment to stockpile stewardship are in place ... the United States has the technical ability to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear explosion testing.”
Directors of all three nuclear labs have testified that testing is not needed for stockpile reliability.
The International Monitoring System and the U.S. National Technical Means combine seismic, radiological, acoustic, visual and infrared sensing. Ultimately, 337 sensing systems will be in place. More than 250 are already operational. The system easily detected the past two nuclear tests by North Korea in October 2006 and May 2009. Both tests were detected by multiple detection sites and modes.
In addition, last year’s Fukushima tsunami was detected by the international seismic stations before it struck, and the subsequent nuclear radiation leak was traced as it spread.
In April 2009, George Schultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of State, said, “Republicans might have been right voting against CTBT some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.” This latest report only further underscores the point.