UN Resolution on Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Spurs Debate on Treaty’s Merits

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Publication date: 
27 September 2016

Last Friday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution calling on nations to maintain their moratoria on nuclear weapons testing pending ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Leading up to the resolution, current and former policymakers reflected on the 20-year-old treaty’s prospects, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who referred to ratification of the treaty as “unfinished business,” and former senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who argued that the U.S. should never ratify the treaty.

On Sept. 23, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution urging nations that have not yet signed or ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) to do so and calling on all nations to maintain their moratoria on explosive nuclear testing. The resolution also calls on nations to continue to support the international monitoring network that underpins the treaty’s verification regime.

UN Security Council meetingTo date, 166 of the 183 U.N. Member States have ratified the CTBT. However, according to a provision in the treaty, 44 specific countries must ratify it for it to enter into force. Eight of these countries have yet to do so: the U.S., China, Israel, Iran, and Egypt have signed but not ratified the treaty, and India, Pakistan, and North Korea have not signed the treaty.

With the notable exception of North Korea, no countries have conducted a nuclear test since 1998. However, countries are not legally prohibited from testing under international law unless the CTBT enters into force.

Senate Republican concerns about resolution allayed

In the weeks leading up to resolution, Senate Republicans expressed concerns that the statement may subject the U.S. to new legal obligations, thereby impinging on the Senate’s constitutional role in treaty ratification. These concerns led Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) to convene a hearing on the subject on Sept. 8, summarized in FYI #106.

On the same day as the hearing, 33 Republican senators sent a letter to the president threatening to withhold funding from the international monitoring network if the statement imposed new legal obligations on the U.S. A subset of these senators also introduced a bill on Sept. 20 that would carry out this threat. A companion bill was also introduced in the House. Notably, Corker did not sign the letter and is not a cosponsor of the Senate bill.

Corker’s concerns about the resolution appear to have been resolved. In a Sept. 23 statement, he said “Fortunately, it appears the administration has heeded the strong warnings so many of us articulated in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month and has changed course on the CTBT.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who spearheaded the letter, issued a similar statement.

Moniz calls CTBT ‘unfinished business,’ lauds Stockpile Stewardship Program

On Sept. 13, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz spoke at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank, on the subject of future nuclear challenges. In his remarks, Moniz referred to ratification of the CTBT as “unfinished business” and indicated his hope that the next administration will seriously consider pursuing ratification of the treaty in light of the success of the Department of Energy’s Stockpile Stewardship Program. His remarks on the CTBT are excerpted below:

1999 Moniz and 2016 Moniz

A bit of, in my view, unfinished business is certainly the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. … Going back to the 1999 unpleasant hearings on the CTBT, which I had the honor to be a part of, one of those hearings, when I was undersecretary: The fact is that, what I would argue is both of the substantive objections at that time have been addressed through technology. I think it’s very important we understand that. In particular, science-based stockpile stewardship, maintaining the deterrent without testing, has now gone on for more than two decades. 

What I do want to emphasize — and it’s a little bit of, perhaps, bragging about our laboratories — is that there was nothing easy about accomplishing that. And frankly, in 1999, there was hope, but not much more, that science-based stockpile stewardship would in fact succeed in the way it has in terms of certifying the stockpile without testing, year after year after year. I want to emphasize that success was built on an incredible degree of innovation. You know, one part, just one part of stockpile stewardship is the development of high-performance computing to a new level at that time to help simulate the physics of a weapon, if you like, and I think a lot of people think that just meant buying more boxes. No, it was a new architecture of computing, to be able to go to these new levels.

I could go on and on for a long time, but I just want to emphasize that that was an enormous accomplishment. It shows every prospect of continuing for a very, very long time. And that plus the near completion of a global seismic network for determining underground explosions even at very, very low yields really has addressed those two issues. As one looks forward into the next administration, I certainly hope that this is an agenda item that can be revisited in a serious way.

Former senator criticizes Stockpile Stewardship Program

On Sept. 20, the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, held an event to discuss the U.N. resolution on the CTBT. Speaking at the event were Stephen Rademaker, the majority-invited witness at the Senate hearing, and Jon Kyl, a former Republican senator for Arizona and a longtime critic of the CTBT. At the event, Kyl argued that the U.S. should never ratify the treaty because it has numerous deficiencies and because the Stockpile Stewardship Program cannot be relied upon in the long term. His remarks on the Stockpile Stewardship Program are excerpted below:

1999 Kyl and 2016 Kyl

The big experiment here is that we’re going to rely on stockpile stewardship, we’re going to model how these things work with computers, and we’re so good at modeling and computer science that we can predict what’s going to happen with this nuclear reaction here. Well, you can’t. But the experts who are in charge of and get a lot of money every year to run the Stockpile Stewardship Program will swear to you that they’ve got really good at it and they’re pretty darn sure that they can predict what these weapons would do. 

Two of the last people who designed and built and tested our nuclear weapons, Dr. Johnny Foster and Dr. Steve Younger, will tell you, both lab directors by the way, will tell you that the biggest problem we have is the hubris of the scientists and others who believe that they can predict what would happen without ever testing. … 

The final reason you need to test is to keep the ability to work these weapons alive in your cadre of scientists who have the obligation to try to accomplish this. We don’t have now any more people working at our labs who designed, built, and tested these weapons. They’re all gone. One reason that countries like Russia continue to do experiments is to keep a cadre of scientists together who are very knowledgeable and expert at handling these materials and understand how they work. And without that group of people ready to go, a country is playing with fire, just to put it bluntly.

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