Star Tribune
(Minneapolis, MN)
November 8, 1997

Nuclear treaty; Get ready to ratify the test ban

No sensible soul wants to egg his neighbors into bad behavior - especially if he'll feel obliged to follow suit. So it is with the United States and nuclear weapons. This country has a lot of them and is eager to keep the technology under control. It doesn't want new nations joining the nuclear club, and doesn't want current members competing to develop fancier bombs. So what Americans should want is a global ban on nuclear testing. They can get it - if only the U.S. Senate will ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

It's no small thing to give up a decades-old habit, and that's what nuclear testing has been to the U.S. government: For most of the last 52 years, the nation has certified the reliability of its atomic weapons by exploding them underground. That ritual was stopped in 1992 by Congress, and the moratorium was validated when the United States signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last year. The treaty can't be enforced until it is ratified by its more than 140 signatories. The U.S. Senate gets its chance early next year.

Many in Washington were hooked on the testing habit, and it's hard for them to imagine forsaking it. Is it truly possible to know U.S. stockpiles will work, they wonder, if the bombs can't be tested? And how can this country really be sure that other nations are going along with the test ban?

Lawmakers had a chance to chew over their concerns at two hearings last week, and they should have found the experience consoling. Though a few witnesses expressed skepticism about the treaty, many others offered a heartening picture of a world without nuclear tests.

It's not a world without safeguards. Rather than detonate nuclear weapons, the government now tests their performance and safety through an elaborate program of scientific analysis. As Energy Secretary Federico Pena told a Senate subcommittee last week, this replacement program - in operation since 1993 - has proved extremely reliable: "Do I have confidence that stockpile stewardship will work . . .?" he asked. "My answer now is an almost unqualified yes."

Neither does the test-ban treaty require blind faith of its signatories. It counts on a worldwide network of seismic and other monitoring stations that can detect underground explosions. The system's capabilities have already been demonstrated. A "seismic event" occurred last August near a Russian nuclear site; thought to be a bomb test by U.S. agencies, it was conclusively declared an earthquake by the monitoring system's sensors. The upshot of all this is plain: If lawmakers want a system that assures no country can sneakily conduct tests, they have it.

Skeptics to the contrary, this treaty is no threat to anyone except the world's rogues and rascals. In fact, it promises Americans a great deal: It would guard against the renewal of the nuclear arms race. It would block the path of atomic wannabes - thereby curbing the spread of the bomb. It would end the potential for environmental and health hazards from nuclear tests. For all that, America should be willing to give up an old habit.