Today is the 67th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear explosion test, known as “Trinity”, which used a plutonium core. It was unnecessary for the first use of a nuclear warhead, on Hiroshima three weeks later, as designers were so confident about that form of HEU ‘gun-type’ warhead. Since July 16, 1945 there have been over 2,000 nuclear explosions conducted worldwide to give an extremely high level of confidence in the evolving designs of nuclear weapons and to send political messages. The basics of nuclear bombs are now widely known and with the right materials and people, simple bombs can be produced and used without testing.
Globally, publics and policymakers have grown opposed to nuclear explosion testing for political, security, moral and environmental reasons. The opposition has led to various agreements to ban these tests, including a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which 157 countries have ratified, including the nuclear weapon states of France, Russia and the United Kingdom. However, the treaty cannot enter into force until the United States, China, North Korea, Egypt, Israel, Iran, India, and Pakistan also ratify.
The United States has continued a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear explosion testing since 1992 and as perhaps the critical diplomatic powerhouse in encouraging support, was the first to sign the comprehensive ban in 1996. Ratification requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate and so far, Senators have had one opportunity to vote on the treaty in 1999, during the Clinton Administration, and they voted it down by 51-48, mostly along party lines. We cannot now expect the Treaty to come back to the Senate before next year.
A U.S. National Academies study released in the spring gave assurance that the United States is in a strong position to participate in such a ban. Meanwhile, diplomats and arms controllers continue to grapple with the challenges of finding ways to make the remaining holdouts more amendable to fully backing the treaty.
If the political storms in Washington ever calm down enough for Senators to consider the ban again, they may realize that further delaying U.S. ratification is not encouraging other countries to blink first, and that a CTBT in force will strengthen U.S. security. Not least, a CTBT in force would halt further nuclear advancements – essentially locking in the advantages current nuclear weapons states already possess. If the U.S. Senate cannot see the strength of interests in that, how can we encourage others with more to lose to ratify the treaty?
The CTBT process is a legal but also a norm-building exercise, which means that the ultimate benefits are to be had by future generations. If by the time the 75th Anniversary of Trinity comes around and the United States has failed to ratify the ban, however, it is unlikely that the rest of the world will find credible the U.S. commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
These are the views of the author.