The Case for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Nuclear weapons testing is a dangerous and unnecessary vestige of the last century that the United States rejected almost 20 years ago. Following the end of the Cold War and after 1,030 nuclear tests, the United States ended new warhead production and halted nuclear testing in 1992.

In September 1996, the United States was the first nation to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which “prohibits any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion,” and establishes a global monitoring network and the option of short-notice, on-site inspections that improves capabilities to detect and deter cheating.

Today, there is no military requirement for new nuclear weapons capabilities that might require the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing. The U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories do not need nuclear explosive testing to maintain the effectiveness of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.

It is in U.S. national security interest to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent nuclear weapons testing by others, and improve U.S. and international capabilities to detect, deter, and respond to possible cheating. Even though the United States has already assumed most CTBT-related responsibilities, it cannot reap the full security benefits of the CTBT until the Senate approves the Treaty by a two-thirds majority.

President Barack Obama has declared his support for U.S. ratification of the CTBT as a key component of his broader international efforts to prevent the use and spread of nuclear weapons. A growing list of bipartisan leaders and security experts agree that by ratifying the CTBT, the U.S. stands to gain an important constraint on the ability of other states to build new and more deadly nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to American security.

As the Senate revisits the CTBT for the first time in more than a decade, it needs to consider the following ways in which the case for the CTBT has become significantly stronger:

CTBT’s Increasing National Security Value

Global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons are in jeopardy. The international legal framework built to stop the spread and use of nuclear weapons, held together by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is under stress. Now, unpredictable nations such as North Korea and Iran have active nuclear programs, and Pakistan has been leaking its nuclear weapons know-how.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT is an essential first step to rebuilding international support for measures to prevent the use and spread of nuclear weapons. In 1995, the U.S. and the other nuclear powers promised to deliver on the CTBT in exchange for the indefinite extension of the NPT. Action on the CTBT would give the United States more leverage to win support for tougher nuclear safeguards and more effective responses to cases of noncompliance.

A global verifiable ban on testing would constrain the ability of nuclear-armed states, such as China, to develop new and more deadly nuclear weapons. Without nuclear weapon test explosions, would-be nuclear-armed nations—like Iran—would not be able to proof test the more advanced, smaller nuclear warhead designs that could be used to arm ballistic missiles.

Proven Ability to Maintain the Arsenal

Over the past decade, the success of the Stockpile Stewardship Program has demonstrated that the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal can be maintained under a CTBT. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) have refurbished and recertified major warhead types without nuclear testing. Key plutonium parts in warheads have been shown to last 85-100 years, much longer than previously thought, and limited production capacity has been established to remanufacture new parts when needed, making new-design "replacement" warheads unnecessary.

The United States has no need to resume nuclear testing. It already has the most advanced and deadly nuclear arsenal in the world. The United States has conducted 1,030 nuclear tests, more than all other nations combined, including Russia (715) and China (45). Given this advantage, it is clearly in U.S. national security interests to prevent other nations from testing nuclear weapons.

Proven Ability to Verify Compliance

Today, no would-be cheater of the CTBT could confidently conduct an undetected nuclear explosion large enough to threaten U.S. security. The international verification system, together with U.S. national technical means of verification, will detect militarily significant tests. However, unless it ratifies the Treaty, the United States cannot take advantage of the international system’s full benefits, such as on-site inspections.

Over the past decade, national and international test monitoring capabilities have significantly improved. At the end of 1999, only 25% of the CTBT’s 337 monitoring stations had been built. As of 2012, 80% of the planned global verification network is now in place and transmitting information to the International Data Center in Vienna. North Korea’s nuclear test explosions in 2006 and 2009 demonstrated that the CTBT verification system is working well and can detect very small explosions with high confidence.

The Importance of U.S. Leadership

The CTBT has now been signed by 183 nations, including the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain and France, and ratified by 157, including Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and all of the United States’ NATO allies. The CTBT’s entry into force awaits ratification by eight states: the United States, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.

U.S. ratification would spur other key nations, such as China, India, and Pakistan, to ratify the Treaty and would reinforce the global taboo against nuclear testing. Without positive U.S. action on the CTBT, the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and the resumption of testing will only grow.

The Time for the CTBT is Now

U.S. approval of the CTBT would reinforce the global test moratorium and accelerate the Treaty’s formal entry into force, helping to constrain the ability of other nuclear-armed states to improve their nuclear bombs.

Equally important, U.S. ratification of the CTBT would reestablish strong U.S. leadership in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to additional nations and to terrorist groups. The CTBT would strengthen U.S. and international security for years to come.