Since the first nuclear test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, in July 1945, the five major nuclear weapons states — the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, and China — plus India have conducted 2,044 nuclear tests: on average one every nine days for the past 50 years. Every test has produced environmental contamination, helped to develop new weapons, and added to the arsenals of the nuclear states. Even with the end of the Cold War, nuclear testing continues, a reminder that the nuclear arms race is not over.
A Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
Since the 1950s, opposition to nuclear testing has been spurred by concerns over its health and environmental effects and by testing being one of the more visible signs of the nuclear arms race. Most recently, in 1995-1996, massive worldwide criticism of French nuclear tests in the South Pacific, caused France to curtail its test program. Public opposition and the dangers of an arms race fueled by nuclear testing have lead governments to try to limit and stop nuclear testing for over 40 years. Finally, following the adoption of a unanimous resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, the Conference on Disarmament began negotiations on a CTBT to end nuclear testing for all time. These historic negotiations have gathered widespread support. In 1995, the 170 nations participating in Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference in New York in May, said a CTBT should be completed no later than 1996. This was reaffirmed by a United Nations resolution in November 1995.
In mid-May, when the negotiations for a CTBT reopen at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, the 37 countries in the CD will have just seven weeks to complete their work if a treaty is to be ready for signing in September at the outset of the United Nations General Assembly’s 51st session. If the CD delegates cannot agree the text of the treaty by the end of June, the chance to have a CTBT will have slipped away again, perhaps forever.
One of the key points of disagreement remaining is the CTBT’s scope, i.e. what will banned by the treaty. At the Moscow Nuclear Safety Summit, Russia at last joined France, the U.S., and the U.K. in agreeing that the CTBT should ban all nuclear explosions regardless of their size and regardless of whether they explosions are said to be for military or peaceful purposes (the so-called ‘0-yield CTBT’). Of the five ‘official’ nuclear powers, only China has not agreed to a 0-yield CTBT, wanting to preserve the option to conduct ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosions’ for civilian purposes.
Another important political problem to be resolved is the Preamble of the Treaty. The U.S. and other nuclear powers are opposed to including language in the Preamble that refers to the need for further specific steps towards nuclear disarmament steps. There are also several technical and political issues regarding verification and the treaty’s entry into force which also need to be settled urgently.
Several external events also may derail the CTBT talks. First, and most importantly, China still plans to conduct nuclear weapons tests and has said that it halt testing only when the treaty enters into force — at least several years away. Testing during the talks or until the treaty enters into force may delay the negotiations or the application of the treaty.
Second, the U.S. has plans to conduct so-called sub-critical nuclear tests in June and September and continue this program in 1997 (and beyond). Although these tests should not involve a nuclear explosion and so would not be banned by a 0-yield CTBT, they will use fissile materials and be conducted underground. The sophistication of these sub-critical tests may mean they could be used to develop new nuclear weapons or improve or perfect existing ones, thus calling into doubt one of U.S. President Clinton’s stated goals for the CTBT — in January 1996, he told the U.S. Congress that the CTBT “must end the race to create new nuclear weapons.”
Finally, there are fears that tensions in South Asia may lead India to conduct another nuclear test and so delay completion of the treaty.
The CTBT and Beyond
A CTBT is a crucial step toward achieving nuclear disarmament and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
A CTBT will make it much harder for the nuclear weapons powers and the handful of non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear ambitions to develop new nuclear weapons. Getting a CTBT in place will clear the way for additional disarmament measures. By prohibiting all nuclear explosions, a CTBT also would reduce the risks to health and the environment.
The CTBT, however, is just a first step toward nuclear disarmament. There are 21,000 nuclear weapons in the world today — 95 percent in the hands of the U.S. and Russia. It is obvious that once a CTBT is signed, several more nuclear disarmament steps must follow in order to fulfill the promise to halt the nuclear arms race and eliminate nuclear weapons.
First, to strengthen the CTBT and make it irrevocable, the rest of nuclear weapons states should follow the example of France and close their nuclear weapons test sites. The nuclear weapons states should also forgo underground sub-critical tests. Their ambiguous purpose undermines the goals of the CTBT and they will complicate the verification of a CTBT. Also, they should declare as a matter of policy no new nuclear weapons will be designed or built.
Second, the U.S. and Russia must move immediately to negotiate deeper reductions in their massive nuclear arsenals, and to withdraw any remaining nuclear weapons from overseas. Production of new nuclear weapons systems, like strategic nuclear submarines and new nuclear missiles should be stopped. The U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons deployed in Europe and western Russia and weapons carried at sea should be withdrawn and eliminated: Europe should join the growing list of Nuclear Weapons Free Zones around the world and the world’s oceans should be made nuclear free.
Third, the other nuclear weapons states, the U.K., France, and China need to join discussions on reducing and eliminating their nuclear weapons. Israeli nuclear weapons need to be addressed in the context of the Middle East peace process.
Finally, the production of fissile materials needs to stop and international control needs to be established over fissile materials and dismantled weapons to ensure the disarmament process is irreversible.
World Nuclear Tests
|Country||Total||Date of 1st Test||Date of Last Test|
|U.S||1,030||16 July 1945||23 September 1993|
|Russia||715||29 August 1949||25 October 1990|
|France||210||13 February 1960||27 January 1996|
|U.K.||45||3 October 1952||26 November 1991|
|China||43||16 October 1964||Still testing (2-4 more planned in 1996-97)|
|India||1||18 May 1974||—-|
World Operational Nuclear Arsenals, 1996