Test ban treaty is last line of
defense against nuclear espionage

by Charles Ferguson and Daryl Kimball Minneapolis Star-Tribune June 4, 1999

Unless the United States soon ratifies the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and presses for global enactment, China, or any other nation that may have stolen U.S. nuclear weapons information, could resume nuclear explosive testing that is necessary to confirm new bomb designs.

Advanced nuclear weapons are complex devices and the laws of physics are universal. Any country that wishes to build or improve a nuclear weapon needs more than blueprints and computer codes. Only a series of nuclear explosive tests provides the assurance that new types of advanced nuclear weapons work as designed. No Chinese general or political leader can confidently deploy an advanced nuclear bomb design - whether it is developed independently by China, or possibly with the help of stolen nuclear codes - if it cannot be field tested.

The report of the select House committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, which says that China has acquired classified information on most nuclear weapons in the current U.S. arsenal, may prompt some to call for renewed U.S nuclear weapons development and testing. On the contrary, the Cox report teaches us important lessons about nuclear proliferation and the national security value of the Test Ban Treaty.

China had to conduct at least six explosive tests, including one known test failure, to develop its neutron bomb despite its access to American neutron bomb data, according to the Cox report. In fact, the literal smoking guns that tipped off U.S. intelligence that China stole W-88 warhead design information from Los Alamos were its explosive tests of a similar weapon. >From these facts, the United States should realize that nuclear espionage can and will occur but will not give a thief the confidence to deploy weapons without extensive explosive testing.

Renewed nuclear explosive testing would only benefit those nations with fewer numbers and types of nuclear weapons. Even if, by 2010, China modernizes its nuclear arsenal, and the United States reduces to 3,500 deployed strategic warheads, the United States will still have a strategic nuclear force 35 times the size of China's and one deployed on more modern missiles and bombers.

Global enactment of the Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear test explosions, can provide a last line of defense against new advances in weapons development. The United States, China and 150 other states have signed the treaty, which now must be ratified by key states to enter into force. But the Test Ban Treaty has languished in the Senate for more than 18 months because of opposition from Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms and Majority Leader Trent Lott, who have not allowed a hearing, let alone a floor vote. Ironically, many in the Senate who are rightly concerned about the espionage damage are the same senators who have failed to consider ratification of the Test Ban Treaty.

A ratified Test Ban Treaty today will help curtail the nuclear weapons programs not only of China, but also of its neighbors, thus lessening the chances of a dangerous arms race in Asia.

India, citing its fear of China, conducted its own sharply criticized tests last year. Pakistan, citing its fear of India, quickly followed with its own tests. Pakistan's prime minister has pledged to sign the Test Ban Treaty by September, and India has said it would not stand in the way of the treaty's entry-into-force. China already has signed and is expected to ratify this year. Without leadership by the United States through ratification, those nations may not abide by their stated intentions.

That leadership must not only come from the Senate, but also the president and his cabinet. The Clinton administration has delivered numerous strong statements calling for Senate approval of the Test Ban Treaty this year.

However, the president thus far has failed to act on his promise to make the treaty a priority and to capitalize on the overwhelming public support, the endorsement of military leaders, and strong Senate backing for the Test Ban Treaty, which would win the two-thirds majority needed for ratification if a vote were allowed. The Clinton administration must bolster its anemic efforts to press for Senate approval if the United States is to ratify this year.

A fully implemented Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, while not undoing the national security damage caused by China's theft from our nuclear weapons laboratories, would help prevent China from applying valuable nuclear secrets toward an improved nuclear arsenal.

Charles Ferguson, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory research scientist, is a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. Daryl Kimball is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers