WASHINGTON – Almost two decades after the U.S. Senate rejected an international treaty to ban nuclear testing, President Barack Obama hopes to rekindle a national debate on the issue during his final year in office.
Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, is in New Mexico this week as part of an Obama administration push for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, known as the CTBT.
Then-President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1999, but the U.S. Senate voted not to ratify it. The treaty would ban nuclear explosions, for any purpose, by any country. Historically, the test ban has met with resistance from Republicans who worry that it would limit the United States’ ability to ensure reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and that it would prove ineffective in verifying other counties’ nuclear activities.
Gottemoeller met with officials of Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories Thursday to discuss the test ban. Today, she heads south to tour the Trinity Site at White Sands Missile Range, where the world’s first nuclear detonation took place in 1945.
In a Journal interview from Washington this week, Gottemoeller said she hoped “to expand the national conversation about how a global ban on nuclear testing is in our national security interests.”
“I’m focused on the education effort,” she said. “I’m trying to get the American public again focused on the value of the CTBT to our national security. We made a pass at ratifying the treaty back in 1999, and at the time … there wasn’t, I think, the clear knowledge that we could maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear stockpile without testing. The situation has changed quite a bit in the ensuing 17 years.”
That’s because of high-level, high-priced scientific work performed at America’s three nuclear weapons laboratories – Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico, and at Lawrence Livermore in California.
Madelyn Creedon, principal deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the labs’ stockpile stewardship program that maintains nuclear weapons and verifies their effectiveness negates the need for nuclear testing, which carries immense environmental and public health risks. The NNSA oversees work at the nuclear weapons labs.
“The whole underpinning for the CTBT is the stockpile stewardship program,” Creedon said in a Journal interview.
The United States conducted 1,032 nuclear tests from 1945 to 1992. Meanwhile, U.S. adversary North Korea continues to conduct nuclear testing, with its fourth explosion last month. North Korea claimed it had tested a hydrogen bomb, but international experts, including those in South Korea, contend that it was more likely a boosted fission weapon.
Creedon said that when the U.S. Senate rejected the test ban treaty in 1999 by a 51-48 vote, the science behind stockpile stewardship “was in its infancy.” At the time, then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., voted against the treaty, and then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. voted for it.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about the ability to verify the treaty” through science, Creedon said. “It’s that work of the labs that has put us in a much different situation than we were 20 year ago. We know how to certify the stockpile and maintain the stockpile, all without testing. It’s a very mature program. We can do this.”
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, told the Journal this week that they support the ban.
“Ultimately, the advanced computers and simulators at our labs allow our nation to meet commitments under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as a signatory and to make progress toward reducing the total number of nuclear weapons in the world,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Ratifying CTBT would send a strong signal to deter other nations from developing and testing nuclear weapons, including China, India and Pakistan, and help eliminate the harmful effects of nuclear testing worldwide.”
Heinrich also pointed out that today (Friday) marks the fifth anniversary of the New START Treaty between Russia and the U.S., which allows monitoring on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.
“The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is an important element of global nonproliferation efforts, and I believe the United States should ratify it,” Udall said, noting that the nuclear Life Extension Programs at the labs support his position.
Rep. Steve Pearce, the New Mexico delegation’s lone Republican, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the test ban treaty.
196 nations affected
One hundred ninety-six nations would be affected by the treaty, which was negotiated in the mid-1990s at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. So far, 183 nations have signed the treaty and 164 have ratified it.
But the treaty has not entered into force, because it still needs ratification by eight countries that had nuclear power reactors or research reactors when the U.N. General Assembly adopted it. Those countries are the United States, China, Iran, Israel, Egypt, India, Pakistan and North Korea. If any of those countries fail to ratify the treaty, it can not be officially enforced, according to the treaty itself.
Obama has suggested that the Republican-controlled Senate would block ratification in the current Congress, and Gottemoeller said the administration’s public relations campaign to bring the issue up for debate isn’t aimed at ratification this year.
“I don’t think he (Obama) is unrealistic about trying to rush things through in 2016, but he definitely wants to lay some solid groundwork in the hope that the treaty, if it is not taken up in 2016, it can be taken up in the near future,” Gottemoeller said.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CQ Roll Call last month that “there’s been no discussion” about voting on the issue this year.
Although much of the opposition to ratifying the treaty in 1999 centered on doubts about maintaining a reliable U.S. stockpile without testing, many senators were also concerned about the ability to verify that other countries weren’t conducting nuclear tests. Gottemoeller said those concerns have been addressed.
“The treaty promised an international monitoring system, but in 1999 it was just a gleam in people’s eyes,” Gottemoeller said.
“Now, all these years later it is over 85 percent complete and it is already serving important purposes. It provides monitoring of seismic signals, as well as radiation traces, and does other things like infrasound. When the North Korean (nuclear) tests happened a couple of weeks ago, it (the monitoring system) was very quickly out of the block with an assessment of the yield of the tests and was very able to provide a continuing analysis of what was going on.”
Although ratification has some high-profile supporters in the U.S., not all Americans in the foreign policy and nuclear weapons establishment support it. Robert Joseph, who held the same job at the State Department during the administration of President George W. Bush that Gottemoeller holds now, has said the treaty is “fatally flawed.”
“We must not sign treaties like the CTBT that would compromise the U.S. ability to test if necessary to maintain the safety and reliability of the stockpile,” Joseph wrote in a paper published by the conservative Hudson Institute in 2014. “While the United States is taking some steps to modernize its strategic platforms and address the deterioration of the nuclear weapons infrastructure, it is proceeding in a slow, uncertain, and piecemeal fashion – and in the absence of a coherent strategic framework that is vital to guiding planning and investments.”
Sig Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said there are pros and cons to ratifying the test ban treaty – the biggest negative being that nothing is as dependable as actual testing to ensure nuclear weapons’ reliability.
“When you don’t test, you lose something; you lose some confidence” Hecker told the Journal. “That is true in every complex technological system, whether it’s an airplane a rocket or a nuclear weapon. What we’ve done with stockpile stewardship is everything you can possibly do beside nuclear testing and try to keep the confidence at an acceptable level. On the other hand, not testing also gets you some benefits. We do not want China to test, or Pakistan or India to test, and they are influenced by the international norms associated with the CTBT. In China, Indian and Pakistan, nuclear testing would be most important for new nuclear development, and that is not where the world needs to go.
“Since we’re observing it (the test ban), in my view you’d be better-off to ratify it,” Hecker added.