The Once and Future Threat of Nuclear Weapon Testing

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the central security instrument of the United States and the world community. It is based on a strategic bargain between the five nuclear weapon states in the NPT (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) and the 185 non-nuclear-weapon parties to the treaty. The current worldwide moratorium on nuclear weapon testing and the intended ultimate conversion of that ban to legally binding treaty status by bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force are essential to the long-term viability of this strategic bargain. But some Trump administration officials have signaled hostility to the CTBT and an interest in the United States resuming nuclear weapon testing, which could cause a catastrophic unraveling of that bargain.

Soon after 1945 and the end of the Second World War, as a symptom of the Cold War that began shortly thereafter, a vast nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union came into being. The United States conducted its first nuclear weapon test in July of 1945 and carried out two nuclear weapon attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945, shortly before the end of the war. The Soviet Union carried out its first nuclear weapon test in 1949.

The bomb used against Hiroshima had an explosive yield of 12.5 kilotons or 12,500 tons of TNT equivalent. This weapon completely devastated the city of Hiroshima, killing some 200,000 people out of a total population of approximately 330,000. But, with the first thermonuclear weapon test by the United States and the Soviet Union just a few years later, in the 1950s, nuclear weapon tests explosions reached the megaton range, equivalent to 1 million tons of TNT — roughly 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. During the Cold War, the United States built more than 70,000 nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union some 55,000; peak stockpile numbers at one time reached 32,500 weapons for the U.S. and around 45,000 for the Soviets. In the early 1970s, U.S. strategic nuclear weapons carried on U.S. missiles numbered some 5,800 deployed, representing around 4,100 megatons in explosive yield, the Soviet numbers being 2,100 representing 4,000 megatons (the Soviet nuclear weapons tended to be larger).

These are numbers that exceed all comprehension, whether military, political or just on the basis of rationality. They are enough to destroy the world many times over. There also was a perceived risk that these weapons might simply spread all over the world for several reasons. One is national prestige. Since the earliest days of the Cold War, at least among major states, what has distinguished Great Powers from lesser states was the possession of nuclear weapons. Another basis of the proliferation risk has been national security. Israel from the beginning was concerned about attack by the large Arab armies arrayed against it; Pakistan believed it needed to offset the Indian nuclear weapon capability; and North Korean officials have said more than once that its nuclear weapons protect it from attack by the United States.

Kennedy’s Concern

During the Kennedy Administration, policy experts feared there could be as many as two dozen nuclear weapons states by the end of the 1970s. President John F. Kennedy was deeply concerned about the potential for nuclear weapons to sweep across the world. In response to a reporter’s question about the Limited Test Ban Treaty negotiations at a press conference in 1963, he speculated that by 1970 there could be 10 nuclear weapon states with nuclear weapons integrated into their national arsenals as opposed to the then-current four states, and that by 1975, this number could reach 15 or 20. He regarded such a prospect, he said, as “the greatest possible danger and hazard.”

Others have expressed similar anxieties. Mohamed ElBaradei, then the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a 2004 speech in Washington, “The danger is so imminent…not only with regard to countries acquiring nuclear weapons, but also terrorists getting their hands on some of these nuclear materials — uranium or plutonium.” In another speech about that time, he said he thought more than 40 countries were then capable of building nuclear weapons.

President Kennedy’s nightmare has not happened, at least not yet. In 1970, at the time the NPT entered into force, there were five treaty-recognized nuclear weapon states: China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. Israel and India were known as being nuclear weapons capable. Since that time, only two states, Pakistan and North Korea, have acquired nuclear weapons, a far cry from JFK’s fears. What the NPT accomplished is that it changed what had been an act of national pride — the acquisition of nuclear weapons — into an act that would make a country an international pariah.

The primary reason that the anxieties of President Kennedy have not been realized — the main reason that nuclear weapons have not spread widely — is this treaty, the NPT. No international instrument is more important to the security of the United States and the world, and it must be protected and defended at any price.

A Strategic Bargain

But the NPT is not a gift from the rest of the world to the recognized nuclear weapon states. It is a strategic bargain. In exchange for most of the world, 185 states, giving up forever the most powerful weapon ever developed, the five NPT nuclear weapon states agreed to ultimately eliminate their own nuclear weapons and to share peaceful nuclear technology with all treaty-compliant states. During the negotiations, it was agreed that the five recognized nuclear weapon states would, in pursuing nuclear disarmament, adopt interim measures on the way to the eventual elimination of their nuclear weapons. This commitment is found in the preamble, which refers to “effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

When the NPT was signed in 1968 and when it was permanently extended in 1995, the most important of these “effective measures” by far was the CTBT. It alone, as an interim measure, was mentioned in the preamble to the NPT. The thinking in 1968 was that, if the world situation did not yet permit the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons, at least the nuclear weapon states could stop testing. The United States announced a moratorium on nuclear weapons tests and pursuit of a comprehensive test ban in 1993. Russia and France had already announced moratoria by that time, Britain was bound by the U.S. decision since it used the U.S. test site, and China was silent but not testing.

Gradually, the U.S. moratorium spread over the entire world. China tested in 1993, after the U.S. moratorium, and carried out seven more, completing its last test in 1996. France tested six times in 1995 and then closed its test site. India and Pakistan each carried out a series of tests in 1998, and then both announced moratoria. That left only North Korea, which declared in 2018 that it would conduct no more tests.

As for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would prohibit all nuclear weapon tests, it was negotiated at Geneva between 1994 and 1996 and signed at the United Nations with President Bill Clinton signing first for the United States in 1996. It now has been ratified by 168 nations, including Russia, Great Britain and France.

Barriers to CTBT Ratification

But the test ban treaty has not yet come into force, and the principal reason is the unwillingness of the U.S. Senate to agree to ratification. The entry-into-force provision says the treaty will go into effect upon ratification by the 44 countries that had nuclear facilities of any kind on their territory when the treaty was signed in 1996. Thirty-six of the 44 nations have ratified. Of the eight remaining, seven are explicitly or implicitly waiting on the United States. So, the United States, which has conducted more nuclear weapon tests than the rest of the world put together and which would benefit more than any other country from its entry into force, is forced by its own institutional ratification procedures to prevent that from happening.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is the essential “glue” that holds the NPT together. As noted above, it was the most important commitment by the nuclear weapon states in the eyes of non-nuclear weapon NPT states parties in 1968, when the NPT was signed. Giving up the testing of nuclear weapons is the “quid” for the “quo” of giving up nuclear weapons forever, as the non-nuclear weapon NPT states parties saw it.

The Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, however, has adopted an unyielding position on CTBT ratification that prevents the U.S. from ratifying that treaty. That intransigence raises much concern about the long-term stability of the NPT. And if the NPT was ever to be lost, it probably could never be regained, as the essential compromises could not be made again.

But the enemies of the CTBT are still active.  Several years ago, leaders of the U.S. political right began a debate arguing that Russia and China never accepted the “zero yield” standard — that is, that any explosion that involves a nuclear reaction, no matter how small, is a banned nuclear test under the treaty — and that, as a result, the U.S. has been holding itself to a stricter standard in its informal observance of the CTBT — a standard of zero yield — than Russia and China. The proponents of that argument therefore hold that the U.S. should “unsign” or remove its signature from the treaty by publicly asserting it did not intend to ratify, and the United States then would cease to be bound by international law, which requires informal observation of the treaty pending ratification, and could resume nuclear testing. (When the U.S. signed the CTBT, international law pursuant to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties required that parties not undertake actions that would defeat the object or purpose of the treaty — which certainly would include a nuclear weapon test — unless and until a party formally indicates that it will not ratify the CTBT—or as some commentators put it “unsign” the treaty.)

The issue of the definition of a nuclear explosion or the “scope” of the CTBT — that is, whether the treaty’s prohibition bans all nuclear test explosions that involve a nuclear reaction or whether there is a threshold below which very low-yield nuclear test explosions are permitted — has been raised recently. The New York Times reported on May 29 that “Members of the Trump administration, in particular, John R. Bolton, the National Security Advisor, have long been critics of the test ban treaty, criticizing it for failing to adequately define what constitutes a nuclear test. Fueling the criticism of arms control treaties in general that bind Washington, but are violated by Moscow, one official raised the possibility that the United States should resume low-yield tests.”

An article in the Washington Post on June 13 noted, “A senior Trump administration official said that…the CTBT doesn’t expressly stipulate a zero-yield standard because of the lack of clarity of the text, opening the door for Russia to conduct very low-yield tests, while the United States, Britain and France hold themselves to the stricter standard of zero yield. `If we are going to hold ourselves to a zero-yield standard and they’re not, that’s a problem,’ the official said.”

But there is no lack of clarity. Russia and China are bound to a zero-yield CTBT, just like the United States, Britain and France.

First, the relevant language of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) of 1963, which prohibited nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, outer space, underwater, and underground if any such explosion exceeds 150 kilotons, is a zero-yield treaty. No one has ever suggested that small nuclear explosions could be carried out in the atmosphere. The CTBT, in order to make absolutely clear that it is also a zero-yield treaty, uses in its provision defining a nuclear weapon precisely the same words, in a slightly different order for grammatical reasons.

Article I of the LTBT reads as follows:

“Each of the parties to this Treaty undertakes to prohibit, to prevent and not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction and control.”

Article I, paragraph 1 of the CTBT reads as follows:

“Each State Party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control.”

There is no substantive difference here; both provisions mean the same thing. In addition, the negotiating record shows that the Russian and Chinese negotiators as well as the U.S., British and French negotiators made comments to this effect.

Russian negotiator Ambassador Grigory Berdennikov stated shortly before the end of the negotiations on May 14, 1996:

“I would like to remind you that the Russian delegation has always argued that the treaty should contain no threshold restrictions whatsoever. We note with satisfaction that this approach is now shared by other participants in the negotiations. Russia accepted that any nuclear weapon-test explosion or any other nuclear explosion in any environment would be banned forever and without any thresholds.”

Years after the close of the negotiations, Ambassador Berdinnikov added the following on Dec. 7, 2005:

“Russia, from the very beginning, was supporting the proposal of a nuclear explosion ban without thresholds. The difficult negotiations resulted in a compromise. On the one hand, the Treaty prohibits any nuclear explosion, however low the yield, and on the other hand, it permits experiments with nuclear weapons, including those of the explosive nature, but under the condition that they are purely chemical (the so-called ‘hydrodynamic experiments’).”

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev on July 29, 2009, said:

“Under the global ban on nuclear tests, we can only use computer-assisted simulations to ensure the reliability of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.”

China’s negotiator, Ambassador Sha Zukang, said near the end of negotiations on March 28, 1996:

“China is committed to conducting a CTBT which prohibits any nuclear weapon test explosion in any place and in any environment. Proceeding from this guiding principle, the Chinese delegation proposed at the outset of the negotiations its scope text prohibiting any nuclear-weapon test explosion which releases nuclear energy. The phrase ‘release of nuclear energy’ was intended…to distinguish the scope of the CTBT from the Limited Test Ban Treaty and to define the scope of the CTBT with more precise and scientific language. The Chinese delegation has always held that the scope of the CTBT should exclude any threshold. After two years of negotiations, most countries have reached a common understanding on the phrase any nuclear-weapon test explosion in the scope article. That is to say, the future CTBT will without any threshold prohibit any nuclear weapon test explosion.”

Some countries in the negotiations preferred to use the term “no threshold,” meaning there is no threshold below which a nuclear test could be allowed. It means the same thing as zero yield.

Claims Without Evidence

More recently, those who would like to put aside what they see as the obstacle of the CTBT have changed course and apparently accept that Russia and China are bound by the zero-yield standard for the CTBT, but now claim without evidence that Russia has carried out low-yield weapon tests that violate its zero-yield obligations.

On May 29, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., asserted in remarks at the Hudson Institute:

“Russia’s development of new warhead designs and overall stockpile-management efforts have been enhanced by its approach to nuclear testing. The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero yield’ standard … The United States, by contrast, has forgone such benefits by upholding a ‘zero yield’ standard.”

However, when pressed by Michael Gordon of the Wall Street Journal on that assertion in the question-and-answer session that followed, General Ashley presented no evidence for his claim and said only that Russia “has the capability” to conduct a test with a low nuclear yield.

“It is our belief that they are set up in such a way that they are able to operate beyond a way that would be necessary for zero yield and so the facilities they are operating have that capacity to operate in something other than zero yield,” said Ashley.  His comments were later clarified by Jim Morrison at the National Security Council, who asserted that Russia “has taken actions” to improve its nuclear arsenal that “run contrary to the scope of its obligations under the treaty.” This statement clarifies nothing.

The Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) issued a statement in response to General Ashley’s remarks that its International Monitoring System “is operating as normal and has not detected any unusual event.”

In an interview with The Guardian, the head of the CTBTO, Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo, said the agency had already investigated General Ashley’s assertion and found no evidence that would support the claim that Russia has conducted low-yield tests in violation of the treaty.

So, a high-ranking U.S. official is asserting that Russia has taken acts contrary to the zero-yield standard while the U.S. is adhering to it. This is a back-door admission that Russia is indeed bound by the zero yield under the CTBT. But no evidence is presented that there have been acts inconsistent with this standard. The CTBTO, the watchdog authority for the CTBT, asserts there were none. When pressed, the U.S. official retreats to the statement that Russia has the capability to carry out low-yield nuclear weapon tests, a capability that Russia as well as China, the United States and France have had for years.

All of this appears to be simply a smokescreen to provide cover for the United States to “unsign” the CTBT and throw open the gates to full-scale nuclear weapon testing. This apparently would not be for any military necessity but for some sort of ideological reason.

The results of a U.S. resumption of full-scale nuclear weapon tests would be catastrophic. U.S. security should not be treated as some sort of object to be played with for political gain. The reality likely would be the trashing of the CTBT and the testing of nuclear weapons by a significant number of nations — for example, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

And because of the intimate connection of a ban on nuclear weapon tests to the basic strategic bargain underlying the NPT, as mentioned above, the NPT under these circumstances could come apart under the added pressure of a deteriorating world situation created by climate change. Among the many calamitous events stemming from climate change are the expansion of deserts, the shrinkage of arable land, a significant decline in fresh water sources, as well as widespread major wildfires, horrific heat waves, and significant threatening diseases as a result of advancing insects and an increasingly acidic ocean. Countries facing these conditions may wish to turn to nuclear weapons to protect what they still have.

JFK’s 20th Century nightmare would become the reality of the 21st Century. The NPT, along with the CTBT, must be defended at all costs.

IMAGE: Doves fly over the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in western Japan on August 6, 2015 during a memorial ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

  

About the Author(s)

Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr.

Executive Chairman of Lightbridge Corporation USA. Former General Counsel and Acting Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.