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The CTBT Revisited: Has Anything Really Changed? September 22, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Iran, Israel, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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[This article was picked up by the Center for Vision and Values and is available here: http://www.visandvals.org/New_Life_for_the_CTBT.php]

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an agreement which would ban all nuclear tests, may soon be revived from its purgatory in the Senate.   It was signed by President Clinton in 1996 and rejected by the Senate in October 1999.  The arguments that denied ratification by a 19 vote margin still ring true today.    In his Prague speech, however, President Obama called for prompt U.S. ratification of the treaty.  He is expected to do the same at the UN later this month.

In rejecting the CTBT, Senate opponents listed several concerns that motivated their decision.  They believed the CTBT was unverifiable and that others nations could easily cheat; the ability to enforce the treaty was dubious; the U.S. nuclear stockpile would not be as safe or reliable in the absence of testing; and the benefit to nuclear nonproliferation was minimal.[i]

Ten years later, many of these concerns are still relevant.  The issue of verification has been improved but not settled.  The CTBT Organization has set up a network of 228 monitoring stations around the world, but significant gaps still exist.[ii] There are no stations in India or North Korea, and only one in Pakistan and Turkey.  Sixty-one stations detected North Korea’s nuclear test in May 2009, but none detected radioactive gases to corroborate the seismic data.[iii] If North Korea was able to conceal such radiation, there is no reason to believe China or Russia could not as well.

As the continuing crises with North Korea and Iran illustrate, enforcing treaty obligations or punishing rule-breakers is not always effective.  It is often, in fact, completely ineffective due to a lack of international cooperation.  If a nuclear test were detected in Pakistan, India,[iv] or China, what would happen next?  If the record with Pyongyang or Tehran is any indicator, the violating state would take some rhetorical heat and little more than a toothless UN Security Council resolution (if that).  The CTBT will not immediately change other states’ policies.

The last decade has not been kind to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  Though the Stockpile Stewardship Program has successfully replaced older components, confidence in reliability has declined as the warheads age.[v] Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated that a credible U.S. deterrent cannot be maintained without testing or modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons.[vi] If modernization is not pursued, many experts believe testing will be needed to guarantee the weapons’ reliability.

Most significantly, the treaty’s perceived benefits toward enhancing nuclear nonproliferation are still debatable.  Pro-CTBT voices have made several valid claims to consider.[vii] They argue that without the CTBT the nuclear arms race will continue, especially in Asia, with more states hedging their capabilities to be able to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly.[viii] Treaty advocates are quick to point out that the U.S. has already received a benefit for pursuing ratification – the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.  The NPT, which divides the world into five nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the rest as non-NWS, is up for review in May 2010. The non-NWS are likely going to insist on CTBT ratification in exchange for nonproliferation cooperation.[ix]

These arguments still do not explain how the CTBT will be good for nonproliferation.  For one, the existence of a nuclear arms race (outside India and Pakistan) is suspect, given the fact that the U.S. and Russia are reducing their nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear hedging is a problem to be tackled by IAEA monitoring; not by attempting to ban nuclear tests (the NPT already does this for non-NWS).  Though the non-nuclears may insist on entry into force of the CTBT, there is little reason to believe they will take tougher actions on Pyongyang and Tehran once the U.S. ratifies it.  If unilaterally and bilaterally reducing nuclear arsenals and not testing for 17 years have done nothing to convince non-NWS of U.S. leadership, why will the CTBT?

The CTBT is simply not in the U.S. national interest.  The U.S. would not be guaranteed a seat on the Executive Council, which geographically would be unfriendly to Washington.[x] Since it requires North Korean, Pakistani, and Egyptian ratification (to name a few), the U.S. would be binding itself to a treaty unlikely to ever enter into force.  Though there would be a growing ability to detect nuclear tests, there would be no effective way to enforce the treaty.  The U.S. stockpile would continue to atrophy as explosive testing for reliability would be prohibited, which could spur proliferation.  The CTBT needs to be rewritten to mitigate these drawbacks, not “immediately and aggressively”[xi] brought before the U.S. Senate.


[i] Kathleen Bailey and Robert Barker, “Why the United States Should Unsign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Resume Nuclear Testing,” Comparative Strategy 22 (2003): 131.

[ii] Kathy Sawyer, “Experts say new sensing tools could help ease concerns on Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” AAAS News Release, 10 August 2009.

[iii] http://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/highlights/2009/experts-sure-about-nature-of-the-dprk-event/

[iv] “No CTBT, India needs more nuclear tests; Pokhran II coordinator,” Hindustan Times, 27 August 2009.

[v] William Perry and Jim Schlesinger, America’s Strategic Posture, May 2009.

[vi] “Inside Obama Administration, a Tug of War over Nuclear Warheads,” Global Security Newswire, 18 August 2009.

[vii] Raymond Jeanloz, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Security,” in Reykjavik Revisited, 2008.

[viii] For a discussion on nuclear hedging, see Ariel Levite, “Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited,” International Security 27, no. 3 (Winter 2002/03), 59-88.

[ix] William Perry and Brent Scowcroft, commissioners, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, 55.

[x] “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/ctbt/text/ctbt1.htm

[xi] See text of President Obama’s “Prague Speech.”

America’s Nuclear Deterrent 64 Years After Trinity July 16, 2009

Posted by SV in China, History, Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Government.
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Today, July 16th 2009, marked the 64th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test in Alamagordo, New Mexico.  That test brought the world unambiguously into the Atomic Age.  Since that day nuclear weapons have played a critical role in U.S. defense policy, first as the ultimate tool with which to win the Second World War and almost immediately thereafter as a critical tool to deter aggression against the United States and its allies.  This mission became of even greater importance with the Soviet testing of an atomic bomb in August of 1949.

Despite serving as the most powerful deterrent against threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies, and by preventing a massively destructive conventional (or nuclear) war between the major powers, the nuclear deterrent of 2009 is atrophying and declining in reliability and safety.  As the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission pointed out in its final report, the current nuclear weapons complex suffers from a lack of funding, a lack of emphasis on maintaining the intellectual base, and an almost hostile attitude by policymakers.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Jon Kyl and former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle charged the president with neglecting to support a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent as well as endorsing the unverifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected in 1999.

As the U.S. nuclear inventory continues to age, life-extension or stockpile stewardship programs continue in their attempt to increase the weapons’ service lives.  However, with each further modification, the weapon design is taken farther from the actual model that was proven successful through testing.  Also, each passing year sees more scientists who had experience with nuclear testing retiring.  Therefore the hands on expertise that was produced through a rigorous and scientific development and testing process is declining precipitously.  Crucial skills and knowledge, some of which may only be understood through testing, are being lost.

Though the proponents of a CTBT argue that it will strengthen Washington’s hand in promoting nonproliferation and tougher sanctions toward Iran and North Korea, there is little evidence to support this.  No matter if every other third-party nation suddenly endorsed U.S. nonproliferation efforts, as long as Russia and China continue to block effective measures, which have been within their interests, no amount of political good-will generated by CTBT ratification will stop proliferation.  Therefore, the CTBT could only bring into question more the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent.  If the U.S. is to deter aggression and assure its allies (so that they do not develop their own weapons), it will eventually have to test a new, modern, safe nuclear warhead design to replace the Cold War-era stockpile.

If one wants to reach a compromise position, I would suggest following the French example.  France conducted its last nuclear test in 1995, providing it with a modern, reliable, and proven warhead design that would serve French purposes for decades to come.  Within the next year it signed and ratified the CTBT.  The U.S. could develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) that would have  a service life of decades, test it to verify its reliability and effectiveness, and then ratify the CTBT.  Though a skeptic or pessimist may still argue that the U.S. may need to test a new or different design in the future, there is a “supreme national interest” clause in the CTBT that would allow the U.S. to withdraw if it served to further U.S. national security.  International agreements, after all, should only be abided to in order to further the national interest.

Alamagordo brought the world, willing or not, into the Atomic Age, which we remain in.  The Trinity test was the epitome of the scientific process.  Theorize, hypothesize, predict, and finally test.  Testing, as with any military weapon system, is a crucial option to have available.  Theory with testing is science.  Theory without testing is theology.

Trinity Test

The Nuclear Entrepreneur: A.Q. Khan is Released from House Arrest February 8, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, Science, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On Friday, 6 February 2009, the man most responsible for nuclear proliferation in the world today was released from his light punishment of house arrest in Pakistan.  Abdul Qadeer Khan was released from house arrest (see here) after, according to his lawyer, he was ruled to be not guilty by the Islamabad High Court.  While the State Department thought this ruling was “extremely regrettable” (see here), it warrants a much more outraged response towards Pakistan.

Volumes have been written on A.Q. Khan’s illicit activities and nuclear proliferating; a comprehensive work is Shopping for Bombs by Gordon Corera.  However, the story received little critical attention in the media, as the economic stimulus package continued to dominate the coverage.  A brief synopsis of Khan’s activities illustrate why this is an important issue.  While working as a metallurgical scientist in the Netherlands in the 1970s, Khan stole plans and blueprints for centrifuge equipment (used for enriching uranium) and brought it back to Pakistan.  During the rest of that decade and the 1980s, he worked on building a nuclear bomb for Pakistan using the technical data he had stolen, contacts he had made with businesses that manufactured the specialized equipment that he needed, and uranium and a nuclear warhead design imported from China.  During the 1980s and 1990s he turned entrepreneur and began exporting this technology and organizing sales of specialized equipments to countries that were willing to pay the price.  Because of the extent and capabilities of the A.Q. Khan Network, North Korea was able to develop nuclear weapons and Iran is well on the way to achieving the same feat.  Libya was also on the path to this capability until it turned over its nuclear program to the US and UK in 2003 (which included the blueprints for a nuclear warhead obtained from Khan as a “bonus” to a sale of 20,000 centrifuges).

The A.Q. Khan Network thus become known as the Wal-Mart of nuclear technology.

The damage this network did to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime and arms control is virtually irreversible.  Taking full advantage of the globalized world, it exported nuclear technology and equipment to any nation that could pay the price, and suffered almost no punitive consequences (it was, after all, not a state).  It almost single-handedly added two new nuclear-weapons states to the international system (three if Libya had not given up its program when it did), and allegedly had contacts with many more nations that may be going nuclear (Saudi Arabia, Egypt).  We now live in a much more dangerous world due to the activities of this group, driven by ideological and monetary motives.

Pakistan’s weak punishment to the center of this network is indicative of the growing influence of Islamists in the country.  A.Q. Khan is heralded by many of them as the “Father of the Islamic Bomb” and, as such, is considered a national hero.  It is perhaps a warning sign that Islamabad will not remain friendly to the US for long.  Pakistan is increasingly becoming a dysfunctional democracy, with little control over most of its territory, that is on the brink of either collapse or internal regime change.  It is time the US move closer to India and Iran to try to limit the damage that may be caused when this nuclear-weapons state simply implodes or changes governments.  Tragically, it could become a failed state with nuclear weapons, much more dangerous than Iran to US interests.

The Top Ten Ways to Destroy the Earth April 21, 2006

Posted by Adam Nowland in Humor, Science.
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Found a funny link today, called the Top Ten Ways to Destroy the Earth.  It takes a little scientific knowledge to truly understand, but even those who have long since forgotten what they learned in physics class should still enjoy it.  The methods the author describes are all quite interesting, and the writer has a sense of humor as well.  Its not a list of things terrorists would do, or nuclear holocaust, but a list of somewhat realistic scientific ways the earth could be destroyed.  Enjoy!

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