Effort Underway to Review Technical Issues Regarding Test Ban Treaty

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Publication date: 
8 October 2009

“To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.”- President Obama; April 2009

Last month a study was launched to review and update a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report entitled “Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty.”Sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of State, and the National Academies, a National Academies’ committee is expected to issue its final report in the winter of 2010.

The United States has observed a moratorium on nuclear testing since 1992. In 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was opened for signatures.  The United States is one of six nations (the others being China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, and Israel) that have not ratified the treaty.    The treaty will not go into force until ratified by all six nations.  The U.S. Senate considered the treaty in 1999, but the tally was 19 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for ratification.  Among the reasons cited for the Senate’s opposition to the treaty were technical issues regarding verification, confidence in assuring the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons without testing, and the ability of other nations to enhance their nuclear weapons’ capabilities in an undetected manner.  The 2002 NAS report was requested by the Clinton Administration.

A eleven-member committee chaired by Ellen Williams of the University of Maryland with individuals from four universities, several national laboratories, the National Academies, and the private sector convened for its first meeting on September 9.  The committee is charged with reviewing and updating aspects of the 2002 report.

Under the Statement of Task, the committee is charged with reviewing “the latest evidence” in three areas:

“Maintaining the safety and reliability of the U.S. stockpile”   “Nuclear-test detection”   “Funding levels”

The Statement concludes as follows:

“The report will include a classified appendix to permit a complete evaluation of the evidence on these points, as well as the potential military significance of testing that might escape detection and advances that might be made with a return to full-yield testing in a non-test-ban environment.”

The first panel to address the committee at its meting consisted of officials from the Office of the Vice President, National Security Council, Department of Energy, Department of State, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  The speakers described the importance of the committee’s work that will provide “a key foundation” for the Administration’s future actions. One speaker spoke of significant improvements in national capabilities and experience in the last decade.  The importance of the workforce was discussed, with one speaker saying: “this is what it all comes down to.”  A senior official stressed the need for a balanced discussion of all major areas of concern, with another telling the committee “We want to know the truth.”